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After a historic nine-day strike, West Virginia teachers return to their classrooms today. Teachers called the state-wide work stoppage on February 22, 2018 to protest their salaries, which rank 48th in the nation, and changes to their health insurance coverage that would result in significant increases to their premiums and copays. Governor Jim Justice proposed a resolution that would implement an immediate 5% pay raise for public employees, and create a task force on funding the Public Employees Insurance Agency policies. The resolution quickly passed the West Virginia House of Delegates on Wednesday, February 28th, but languished in the state Senate until March 6th.
While the work stoppage has ended, the decentralized, 55-county-wide, cross-sector strike in the heart of 'Trump Country' offers crucial insight into the contemporary South and the future of labor organization. What does it mean for a state that voted Republican in the most contested national election in decades to lead one of the largest labor uprisings in recent United States history? What can we learn from the ways in which teachers organized themselves across a mostly rural, geographically isolated state? How did they communicate with one another after they refused to follow statewide union leadership? How does this strike fit into a long history of radical labor organizing in West Virginia? And what were the personal motivations driving teachers, from the coalfields to the eastern panhandle and every county in between, to risk their jobs fighting for justice?
In their own words, teachers explain why they went on strike, how this fight was about more than education, and what it means for a largely socially conservative state to tap into its deep roots of radical anti-corporate organizing.
Thomas Jude is a music teacher in Mingo County in the southern West Virginia coalfields. He teaches pre-K to 8th grade. He's the band director, and he's in charge of choral and general music for grades 1-8. We spoke to him on Monday, March 5, 2018.
R. Garringer: Could you talk about how it started? I've heard a few different teachers say it started down in the coalfields, and so I'm wondering if you could start about how this strike started from down that way?
Thomas Jude: We have a really big history when it comes to unions, and the UMWA [United Mine Workers of America] especially. So a lot of people have a family member who went through a strike, or who worked for a union mine of some sort. And people are really proud of that. I think what really started this whole thing and pushed people over the edge was a [health insurance] program called go365. They wanted to use an app for your smartphone and you had to submit measurements for your body, you had to answer questions about your health. I mean even questions as personal as things about your sex life. You had to commit to eating certain foods every day and then log those on your app. And that would all be fine, except for, it was a punitive system. So you weren't rewarded for partaking in the program, you were actually punished if you did not.
About the same time, senator Richard Ojeda from Logan County really started talking about a gas severance tax and how the money is there to provide for better funding for education, better benefits for teachers, pay increases. And I just think all those things came together at the right time and it just pushed people over the edge. We just saw there is money here, our state can do better for us, and this go365 program is the last straw. It was kinda like a slap in the face to teachers.
RG: Could you talk a little bit more about that history of labor organizing in Southern West Virginia, and what do you think it means that that's where this strike started?
TJ: I can't speak to… much personally because I don't have as many family connections to the union. But I just know, you're growing up in a place where you hear about the Matewan Massacre, and you hear about the labor movement in regard to all of that. How scabs were brought in and the workers were replaced, and it just got really really ugly. And people just have a history of supporting unions in the area.
I've even been skeptical to be out and about in the community. Went to get a haircut last week, and I was kind of afraid of taking some heat from people in the community. But our local barber, he told me, he said "When I was growing up, I remember a time when my dad was on strike for an entire year." And [he] offered nothing but very encouraging words, and [said] to stay out until we got a fair deal, and that the people in the community understood.
RG: I wonder what you think it means nationally for West Virginia– which, you know, a lot of people have opinions about us– to be leading this really historic strike?
TJ: I think it just shows people that there's a lot more to West Virginia than you realize. A lot of times people call us things like 'Western' Virginia or they don't realize West Virginia is a state, and there's always outrage from West Virginians for things like that. Because we love our state, we're really proud of what we have here. And we know that the state has major issues, but we want people to know that there's more than just the stereotype of what West Virginia is.
We do have a rich history of labor unions, and you know this was a blue state until 2014. I think right now that there's a big disconnect between people's social beliefs in regard to politics at the national level, and then what people actually want to see at a local level. And, I think that even though we may have a lot of people who vote red in our national elections, they're not ready to let go of some of the values that we've had, and the history of West Virginia being a Democratic state.
RG: Do you care to talk a little bit about what those things that people want to hold onto locally are, versus the things nationally that they're not excited about?
TJ: On the big issues, we're in the Bible belt down here, and the vast majority of people in the area are pro-life, pro-Second Amendment. Exactly what you would think of when you think of conservatives. They really embody all those issues on the social front, but I think that there's still a real commitment to wanting to take care of our own. We're battling the drug epidemic right now, and we do live in an area with high poverty. But on a few issues like labor, people just really believe that we have the right to strike, and to do what we need to do, to make sure that we're given a fair wage and not taken advantage of by corporations, and to make sure that we don't give away our natural resources.
I think right now that there's a big disconnect between people's social beliefs in regard to politics at the national level, and then what people actually want to see at a local level.
We're in an area that's very pro-coal, and the gas industry has moved in in the last few years. People really don't have a problem with taxing those businesses to make sure that our local communities have the support that they need. And we have a Republican legislature that over the past few years has been big on giving out corporate tax breaks. I'd love to see more small businesses come to the area. But if it's just natural resources, generally most people feel like we should tax them, pretty heavily.
Susan McCauley is a high school math teacher at Elkins High School in Randolph County, in east-central West Virginia. She's been teaching for 18 years, 10 of them at Elkins High. We spoke to her on Friday, March 2, 2018.
R. Garringer: I'm curious how the strike is being organized, how communication is happening cross state? I was talking to someone yesterday who said it's not necessarily all coming from the union making a call, and then teachers following, but more grassroots communication.
Susan McCauley: It is, it's a lot through text messages. The teachers at my school, we are pretty evenly divided between the two unions, and then there's other teachers that don't belong to either organization. But we are all working together. And it's not just teachers, it's also the service personnel. We've all kind of formed this collective group on our own. We organized a phone tree, so we've been sending out communications that way.
Initially we were taking our direction from the state leadership, from the AFT [American Federation of Teachers] and the WVEA [West Virginia Education Association], and we tried to go about this in a way that would garner public support. There were a lot of teachers who several weeks ago were already calling for work stoppage or a walkout or that sort of thing. And our leadership really cautioned us against that, to take it slow. So we attended public forums, and we held informational pickets outside of school time to try to bring in public attention to our issues, and we called and called and called our legislators, and sent emails and tried to let them know that this was important to us. We waited and did everything that the unions wanted us to do, and then we voted to give the state leadership authorization to act on our behalf. That really has been what united us. Because when they called for the work stoppage for the first two days– Thursday and Friday of the first week– that came from the top down and all 55 counties went out. After those two days, the union leadership wanted us to go back to school. They wanted to institute something called a rolling walkout, and so every day 5 counties would walk out, not report to work, and either hold their pickets in their county, or report to the capitol and try to meet with legislators and continue to keep up the pressure in Charleston. But at the county level, the teachers really pushed back on that. And because of us saying "We're not going back," here we are, day seven, we're all still out again.
Jim Alder is the band director at Greenbrier East High School in Greenbrier County, which is located in southeastern West Virginia. He has been teaching for 19 years. We spoke to him on Thursday, March 1, 2018.
R. Garringer: What does it feel like to be a part of a state wide strike? What's it been like? Can you describe what it was like to be in the capital…?
Jim Alder: The first thing I'm gonna tell you is maybe gonna come as a surprise or maybe not, but I'm so upset, I'm sick. I feel nauseous almost all the time. There is a certain excitement particularly when you look at things in the bigger pictures as far as what could we be affecting… and isn't this amazing what we've put into this? And from a collegial standpoint, just the bonding that we've found with the people from our buildings that we teach with and work with every day. But we're so much closer now because of this. And then also bonding with people from other schools, and even bonding with people who aren't teachers, who are service personnel or state troopers or whatever else. That's exciting, and feeling that energy in the capitol when there is standing room only, from the entrance to the house chamber all the way across the rotunda to the entrance to the senate chamber, and constant cheering, constant presence there. It's incredibly amazing. You look at it and you're like, "I can't believe I'm a part of this."
But underneath all that, and something that's an undercurrent all the time is that, teachers love our jobs. Particularly in West Virginia, and I can say this as somebody who is born and raised here. If we wanted to go to another state and make more money, we could. And, we've been attacked by some who say, "You shoulda known how much this job pays when you got into it. You shouldn't whine, and if you just want more money you should just go ahead and go somewhere else." They're missing the bigger point. The bigger point is, we want to be here! We want to affect the future of West Virginia in a positive way by giving wonderful educational experiences to the students that we love, respect, and care for every day. We want to be able to afford to do that and pay our own bills. And that's what this is about. So, we're out of the classroom, now 6 days– it hurts because more than anything else we want to be back there with our kids.
RG: Some of the critique is that while the teachers are on strike, the students aren't in school, and that this isn't good for students. How do you feel like the strike is actually about teachers caring about students? Or do you?
JA: I absolutely do think it's about that. This goes a little bit more long-term, but I feel that there have been efforts nationwide through various political action groups, through legislative conglomerates, to undermine and erode support for public education so that there can be more justification for things like vouchers for charter schools and private schools. I think public education is hugely valuable. We don't pick and choose our students. We serve everyone. And if public schools are eroded to the point where we're not trusted to do that, where we don't have the funding to do that, where teachers cannot afford to continue to work in these systems, then ultimately who's gonna suffer the most? The students. The people who are able to afford fancy schools, whatnot, they're gonna succeed no matter what. But what about the poor kids, what about the kids who come from disadvantaged situations? In addition to that, we have a brain drain in West Virginia right now. If I go to my smartest students at Greenbrier East High School and ask them what their plans are for after graduating school, most of them say they plan to go to college, and a lot of them will say they're gonna go to an instate college 'cause they can get better tuition rates there.
We don't pick and choose our students. We serve everyone. And if public schools are eroded to the point where we're not trusted to do that, where we don't have the funding to do that, where teachers cannot afford to continue to work in these systems, then ultimately who's gonna suffer the most?
But they'll also say that once they graduate from college, their plan is to go to another state because they don't feel like they can make a living here. They don't feel like there's any future for them here. And you know what, the ones that I hear that the most from are the ones that are interested in education. The ones who might want to [be teachers] and pass on knowledge to the next generation, want to leave. Because they don't think they'll be able to afford to do it here. So, it absolutely is about the students. It's also absolutely about the future of our entire state. We're not just fighting this fight for ourselves. It's way bigger than that.
Danielle Kenny teaches at Martinsburg South Middle School in Berkeley County, which is located in the eastern panhandle of the state. She's been teaching for 13 years. We spoke to her on Friday, March 2, 2018.
R. Garringer: I've heard some rumors that folks think this could grow beyond West Virginia, and I wonder what you think it means for West Virginia to be leading such a historic strike, given the way that the state is seen in national politics and media, but also the current political moment in our country?
Danielle Kenny: I think people are finally starting to look at West Virginia and realize these people are hardworking people and they're tired of their government taking advantage of them, and if they can do it with the little bit of resources that they have, then we should be able to do it too. I'm sorry I'm emotional about that, but it is the truth. It's sad, but I feel very blessed that I work with an amazing group of educators, that I am supported by an amazing group of service personnel, and we have an amazing DOH and state troopers, and DHHR, and that they are behind us, and we're their voice.
I think people are finally starting to look at West Virginia and realized these people are hardworking people and they're tired of their government taking advantage of them, and if they can do it with the little bit of resources that they have, then we should be able to do it too.
West Virginians are tired of falling for false promises, false goals. It's time for us to take our state back. We put those people down there, and we can take them out of there.
I miss teaching. I think about my students. Because we have such a high rate of low income students, my school has free lunch and free breakfast every day. I take stuff out of my own pocket to buy for them, I keep a drawer in my classroom that when they say "Ms. Kenny, I'm hungry," or "Ms. Kenny, can I have something," and I have it for them. It's not because I'm wealthy, but it's because no student should have to go hungry. And our state has abused their citizens for so long, but we have decided that it's time for us to help everybody. We need to fix this. It's time for things to change.