Crossroads and Country Roads: Wildcat West Virginia and the Possibilities of a Working Class Offensive

Dur­ing the four days I spent in West Vir­ginia, I was repeat­ed­ly thanked for com­ing to sup­port teach­ers from out of state, though most­ly peo­ple seemed a bit sur­prised that I cared. Per­haps it was because I arrived at the exact moment that most of the nation­al media was leav­ing town fol­low­ing the first – false – announce­ment that an agree­ment had been reached.

But it was also because the strike seemed, at the time, to be a very local affair to those par­tic­i­pat­ing. Then, over thir­teen days of strik­ing, it became clear the world was watch­ing, and we had our own rea­sons. Since the West Vir­ginia Teach­ers’ strike end­ed in a vic­to­ry last week, WV teach­ers have been active­ly engaged with and sup­port­ing teach­ers from around the coun­try – par­tic­u­lar­ly in Okla­homa – who, too, are poised to strike. Win­ning made it clear, in a way that few oth­er things could, that West Vir­ginia teach­ers are at the cen­ter of some­thing that goes beyond West Vir­ginia. The strike has opened space for con­crete under­stand­ings of shared prob­lems teach­ers – and pub­lic sec­tor work­ers – face across the coun­try, as well as for prac­ti­cal sol­i­dar­i­ty between them. West Vir­ginia teach­ers burst on to the nation­al polit­i­cal stage in the last days of Feb­ru­ary with a statewide strike. It began when teach­ers and school sup­port staff quick­ly esca­lat­ed from walk­ing into the state house to walk­ing out of work in a stop­page that swept all fifty five coun­ties in the state and last­ed nine days, before end­ing in an agree­ment for a 5% across-the-board raise for all pub­lic sec­tor work­ers.

The action already appears to be a turn­ing point for the renewed pow­er of mil­i­tant work­er action in a coun­try that has seen dras­tic declines in union mem­ber­ship, wages that were until recent­ly stub­born­ly stag­nant, and soar­ing health care costs. As strikes of teach­ers and nurs­es loom in Okla­homa, Ari­zona, Ken­tucky, Pitts­burgh and Cal­i­for­nia, West Vir­ginia illus­trates why care work­ers in edu­ca­tion and health are at the cen­ter of a new upsurge in work­er mil­i­tan­cy.

They demon­strate the poten­tial for strikes to spark a wave of strug­gle that can break through the lim­its of polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty that have con­strained labor and social move­ments since the era of the Ronald Rea­gan pres­i­den­cy, and his crack­down on the labor move­ment and unions. The peri­od was defined by the dis­as­trous 1981 PATCO strike, and an ide­o­log­i­cal con­sen­sus on the impor­tance of “bal­anced bud­gets” for gov­ern­ment expen­di­ture at the fed­er­al and state lev­els. When the Bill Clin­ton-era “third way” dou­bled-down on this frame­work of fis­cal aus­ter­i­ty, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and states slashed pub­lic fund­ing of edu­ca­tion, health and wel­fare. Togeth­er these two moments frame the con­di­tions that teach­ers still, today, are forced to respond.

It is clear that West Vir­ginia has giv­en us much to hope for. But if we’re to take the pro­lif­er­a­tion of the strike as a seri­ous pos­si­bil­i­ty, the stuff of a new prac­tice of pol­i­tics, it’s imper­a­tive to map its inter­nal dynam­ics, and to grasp the micro-lev­els of orga­ni­za­tion that made its exu­ber­ant vic­to­ry pos­si­ble.

Social Repro­duc­tion Cri­sis: Women, Health and Decades of Cuts

What griev­ances cat­alyzed the strike? The school work­ers walked out demand­ing a raise for them­selves and pub­lic employ­ees as well as a fund­ing “fix” for the state health insur­ance plan, PEIA (Pub­lic Employ­ees Insur­ance Agency), that has been under­fund­ed for more than three decades and has, over time, raised patient costs from zero in 1988 to over four hun­dred dol­lars a month today. For teach­ers, many of whom earn between $34,000-$45,000 a year and sup­port staff who earn sub­stan­tial­ly less, between $19,000 and $29,000 a year, the month­ly costs were unsus­tain­able and poised to rise.  

As costs rose to astro­nom­i­cal lev­els with no signs of slow­ing, teach­ers and staff were offered the “oppor­tu­ni­ty” to defray costs by sub­mit­ting bio­met­ric data to the pri­vate com­pa­ny in charge of the Go365 “pre­ven­ta­tive health” pro­gram; for a dis­count on access to health care, work­ers were asked to upload their dai­ly “steps” as well as indi­vid­ual body mea­sure­ments, weight, height and updates about sen­si­tive health tests. Teach­ers believed the “vol­un­tary” pro­gram was like­ly to become com­pul­so­ry, a tra­jec­to­ry they have often seen with “improve­ments’ to school test­ing and assess­ment agen­das man­dat­ed by the state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. While this small humil­i­a­tion was the prover­bial spark that ignit­ed the fire of strike action, denial of claims also played a cru­cial role. An oft-repeat­ed and pos­si­bly apoc­ryphal tale from the pick­et line involved a strik­er who fell, hit­ting her head on the mar­ble steps of the state house; with blood pour­ing, she was rushed to to the hos­pi­tal and prompt­ly denied cov­er­age for a CT scan by PEIA gate­keep­ers. Whether or not the uncon­firmed pick­et line rumor is fac­tu­al­ly true, in each instance I heard the sto­ry was repeat­ed, it was fol­lowed up by more parochial tales of claims for basic med­i­cines and treat­ment and out­rage at pay­ing high costs for lack of access to care.

For teach­ers and edu­ca­tion work­ers, the increas­ing pres­sure of social repro­duc­tion doesn’t stop at their indi­vid­ual health and safe­ty. Many of West Virginia’s edu­ca­tion work­ers, 75% of which are women and most­ly born in West Vir­ginia, are also often par­ents and care­givers for elder­ly rel­a­tives; in sev­er­al cas­es, I met teach­ers who were also the chil­dren of retired teach­ers who them­selves depend on PEIA for health care access for treat­ment of the seri­ous ail­ments like­ly to devel­op in old age. The effects of cuts are inten­si­fied in fam­i­lies where more than one mem­ber works for the state, which in turn mul­ti­plies the bur­den on women strug­gling to cov­er the gaps as bread­win­ners as well as care­givers for peo­ple they love.

At the same time, fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty net­works con­nect a large num­ber of peo­ple in the gen­er­al pub­lic direct­ly to school staff and the PEIA. In my short vis­it to West Vir­ginia, three peo­ple asked me if i was “a teacher from out of state here for the strike.”

The first was an Uber dri­ver who turned out to be mar­ried to a school speech pathol­o­gist. He “admired” both her work in schools and her sec­ond job aid­ing stroke vic­tims in recov­ery – his moth­er had been plagued by strokes at the end of her life – and had pro­posed mar­riage so she might be relieved of her third job as a wait­ress. So he pro­posed, ask­ing her to meet him the fol­low­ing day at the cour­t­house, where he wait­ed with some trep­i­da­tion to find out if she would arrive. She did. Now he works two jobs him­self: a week­day elec­tri­cian and a week­night and week­end Uber dri­ver.

Lat­er, when I was leav­ing the state, a TSA agent in late-mid­dle age also cor­rect­ly guessed my pro­fes­sion and rea­son for vis­it­ing West Vir­ginia; she explained that her hus­band was a retired school teacher and that both she and he had resumed work­ing to pay for health care costs. She thanked me for com­ing and said “they have to hold the line on PEIA.” Not the usu­al case of air­port pro­fil­ing.

Beyond their fam­i­ly net­works, school employ­ees also live and work in cities in towns in the rur­al state that are wracked by pover­ty. In 2015, just under half of chil­dren in the state lived at or below fed­er­al pover­ty lev­els, already a flawed mea­sure of fam­i­lies’ basic abil­i­ty to attain a sta­ble liveli­hood. And teach­ers care about their stu­dents. In addi­tion to the reg­u­lar demands of teach­ing, one ele­men­tary school teacher, Lynn,* expressed her frus­tra­tion: “It’s like we are also social work­ers. There’s not a lot of resources for these kids. If a stu­dent needs extra help, I try to give it, whether its for keep­ing up with exams or some­thing more. It’s not legal but I know of teach­ers in my own school who have tak­en kids into their homes or found oth­er fam­i­lies to do so.” Long bus routes take dri­vers to the poor­est and most inac­ces­si­ble parts of each coun­ty, where the often hid­den pover­ty of West Vir­ginia “hollers” comes into full view.

One dri­ver explained how the 2018 strike dif­fered – and why it was stronger – than a pre­vi­ous teacher strike that took place in 1990, also pri­mar­i­ly over health care fund­ing, the year after cuts to PEIA were ini­ti­at­ed. “In 1990, we didn’t go out. But we also didn’t cross pick­et lines. I just drove my route, and maybe one or two kids would get on the bus, I’d dri­ve to the school and turn around, and take them back home.” This time around, because dri­vers and cooks were also on strike, the total clo­sure of schools was less ten­u­ous. Accord­ing to strik­ers, 10 teach­ers absent can shut­ter a school for safe­ty rea­sons, but a cook or bus dri­ver walk­ing off the job clos­es the whole school. In con­trast, this strike had “more hands on deck” for sup­port­ing stu­dents and fam­i­lies dur­ing the nine-day work stop­page. Strik­ers pre­pared food for stu­dents who rely on free lunch and break­fast pro­grams and, where need­ed, deliv­ered the pack­ages direct­ly to student’s homes. This tac­tic expand­ed sup­port for the strike among fam­i­lies, and pushed the strike past a con­flict at the point of social repro­duc­tion, to one in which repro­duc­tion is par­tial­ly reor­ga­nized, albeit tem­porar­i­ly, on the basis of work­ers’ con­trol for the ben­e­fit of the broad­er work­ing class. Ulti­mate­ly, stu­dents returned the sup­port, with a stu­dent march that wrapped around the state house on Fri­day, March 2, bol­ster­ing teacher and staff morale amidst the insis­tence of law­mak­ers that the strike was “los­ing pub­lic sup­port,” and a sense of urgency around the loom­ing end of the leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

Inter­est­ing­ly, Okla­homa teach­ers also walked out in 1990, over sim­i­lar issues of edu­ca­tion fund­ing and pay. Like in West Vir­ginia, the 2018 strike already appears more uni­fied than the last action 28 years ago, when only part of the state par­tic­i­pat­ed in the walk out and teacher-mem­bers of the AFT went to work.

Women and oth­ers in edu­ca­tion, in health and oth­er paid sec­tors doing the work of social repro­duc­tion find them­selves at an unten­able cross­roads. That is why they must be and are now lead­ers in work­ing class strug­gle. The increas­ing demands of their jobs inter­sect with increas­ing pres­sures at home and in their com­mu­ni­ties in such a way that makes it evi­dent to them that not only are their per­son­al stan­dards of liv­ing at stake, but so is their abil­i­ty to edu­cate, to heal, to par­ent and to par­tic­i­pate in their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. Even to the degree that this bur­den is increas­ing­ly shared across gen­ders, the ten­sion is not resolved. Instead, men are brought into the strug­gle for chang­ing the con­di­tions that have pro­duced a cri­sis of social repro­duc­tion of the work­ing class as a whole.

Right to Work, Forced to Strike: How the Strike was Won

Social strike tac­tics (like free lunch and break­fast pro­vid­ed by teach­ers) and school-wide strikes rep­re­sent an esca­la­tion since the 1990 West Vir­ginia teacher stop­page, reflect­ing the ampli­fied pres­sures on teach­ers and staff. Not only do schools them­selves face fund­ing short­ages, but the work of teach­ers has become increas­ing­ly intense, as new tasks relat­ed to eval­u­a­tion and test­ing wring con­trol of the edu­ca­tion process out of their hands. The impo­si­tion of these exter­nal bench­marks on teacher and stu­dent per­for­mances restruc­ture how time is spent in the class­room, inten­si­fy­ing state com­mand over labor-pow­er and train­ing pupils receive.

These com­bined pres­sures have caused many teach­ers to leave the state for high­er pay. Near­ly one fifth of teach­ers who start in West Vir­ginia pub­lic schools leave after one year, a “brain drain” cen­tered on the poor­est and most inac­ces­si­ble areas. As a result, the schools rely on a num­ber of “long-term” sub­sti­tute teach­ers who may or may not meet the stan­dard qual­i­fi­ca­tions. One less-often dis­cussed demand of the strike, won in its ear­ly days, cen­tered on main­tain­ing stan­dards for teacher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in the face of a rule change that would lib­er­al­ize them.

The teacher short­age increased teach­ers’ work­loads, but also became a source of pow­er. In com­par­i­son with oth­er state work­ers, teach­ers felt they could not eas­i­ly be replaced and, thus, threats of injunc­tions about an ille­gal strike had lit­tle stick­ing pow­er. Teach­ers and oth­er state work­ers report­ed that the threats had a much stronger impact on work­ers out­side of schools.

Strike dis­cus­sions ini­tial­ly emerged in a “secret” Face­book group for WV pub­lic sec­tor employ­ees that even­tu­al­ly had over 20,000 mem­bers – near­ly the total num­ber of work­ers who ulti­mate­ly went on strike. From that group, small­er Face­book groups devel­oped, focused on each coun­ty, and in some cas­es on indi­vid­ual schools. Teach­ers moved dis­cus­sion from Face­book to “IRL” and face-to-face dis­cus­sions in schools, but Face­book remained cen­tral to the orga­ni­za­tion of the strike. While most of the cru­cial votes to strike took place in mass meet­ings in each school or coun­ty, in one case a small school took the cru­cial wild­cat vote via Face­book Live, send­ing a tal­ly of unan­i­mous com­ments in sup­port of con­tin­u­ing the strike in to the school super­in­ten­dent, alert­ing him that no school would be held tomor­row. On Twit­ter, in a pub­lic debate with high stakes, teach­ers and staff, sup­port­ers and some detrac­tors, could be seen open­ly debat­ing the mer­its of var­i­ous pro­pos­als float­ed by the gov­er­nor, union lead­ers and oth­er teach­ers, using strike spe­cif­ic hash­tags #55strong and #Fix­PEIA among oth­ers. One teacher told me that, in her view, tak­ing the “wrong” posi­tion on Twit­ter or Face­book was in-and-of-itself tan­ta­mount to cross­ing a pick­et line. Social media also made it pos­si­ble to coor­di­nate between strik­ers on pick­et lines and those in the capi­tol, to share news and pho­tos of inter-state and inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty and sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ments in nego­ti­a­tions broad­ly and quick­ly.

In addi­tion to its facil­i­ta­tion by social media, the bot­tom-up orga­ni­za­tion of the strike had sev­er­al spe­cif­ic, his­toric roots that are worth explor­ing. First, West Vir­ginia became the 26th state to adopt “Right-to-work” leg­is­la­tion in 2016, an anti-union mea­sure that was once law-of-the-land only in states of the Deep South. In recent years, for­mer union strong­holds like West Vir­ginia, Wis­con­sin, and Michi­gan have adopt­ed the mea­sure, which makes “closed shop” orga­niz­ing ille­gal, dras­ti­cal­ly reduces already falling union mem­ber­ship and drains union cof­fers. One rea­son the West Vir­ginia strike res­onates beyond the state is that union mem­bers nation­wide are expect­ing a rul­ing soon in the Supreme Court of the Unit­ed States on Janus vs AFSCME, which would gen­er­al­ize “Right-to-work” to every state in the coun­try, and par­tic­u­lar­ly dec­i­mate pub­lic sec­tor union mem­ber­ship in states where the right to col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing for pub­lic sec­tor work­ers is not specif­i­cal­ly pre­served.

Addi­tion­al­ly, pub­lic sec­tor work­ers in West Vir­ginia have no legal right to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain with the state, mak­ing any strike action, as the Attor­ney Gen­er­al Patrick Mor­risey care­ful­ly declared, “unlaw­ful.” As a result edu­ca­tion work­ers are mem­bers of one of three unions act­ing as “employ­ee asso­ci­a­tions” – the AFT (Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers), the NEA (Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion) or the WVSSPA (West Vir­ginia School Ser­vice Per­son­nel), a local inde­pen­dent union – rather than bar­gain­ing agents. Though the two teach­ers’ unions com­pete for mem­ber­ship, union staff and lead­ers coop­er­at­ed in nego­ti­at­ing with the state in response to pres­sure from a unit­ed work­force ready to act. The weak orga­ni­za­tion of nation­al unions at the WV state lev­el made pos­si­ble the demo­c­ra­t­ic, rank-and-file orga­ni­za­tion of the strike. Though unions lead­ers act­ed as bar­gain­ing agents, their pow­er to nego­ti­ate depend­ed entire­ly on in the heat of the moment, on the pow­er of the strike, and on self-orga­nized teach­ers, union mem­ber sta­tus aside, rather than on the inde­pen­dent pow­er of more robust union bureau­cra­cies that exist in oth­er states. At the lev­el of schools and coun­ty, whether one was a mem­ber in a par­tic­u­lar union or not played no role in a work­ers abil­i­ty to vote on the cru­cial ques­tions of the strike. At least 700 teach­ers signed or resigned union cards dur­ing the course of the first week of the strike.  

It remains to be seen whether teach­ers them­selves will con­tin­ue to lead in West Vir­ginia, or in new states that go on strike. Can the teach­ers move­ment retain its grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion by replac­ing the union lead­er­ship that failed to rep­re­sent them? Or should they devote their ener­gies to build­ing some­thing entire­ly new? Whether the move­ment remains self-orga­nized and led by reg­u­lar teach­ers will deter­mine how far it can go. We can look to the orga­ni­za­tion of the WV strike to see why, when it comes to the pow­er of a strike, there’s no sub­sti­tute for work­ing class self-activ­i­ty.

The grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion of the strike was visu­al­ly rep­re­sent­ed in the capi­tol by groups of strik­ers mov­ing in small-to-medi­um sized cliques of 3-10, usu­al­ly wear­ing match­ing t-shirts that named their coun­ty or town and rep­re­sent­ed its spe­cif­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics: from Boone County’s “UNION THUGS” to Lake, WV shirts that high­light­ed par­ent sup­port for and stu­dent ben­e­fit from teacher action. Many shirts sport­ed maps of the state and slo­gans of uni­ty, like #55strong. If you were to com­pli­ment someone’s shirt, they were sure to let you know who had been respon­si­ble for design­ing and order­ing the shirt, and from what com­pa­ny they secured the bar­gain from. (Teach­ers take pride not only in their incred­i­ble sign and cos­tume-mak­ing skill, but also in bar­gain shop­ping.) The result was some­thing notice­ably dif­fer­ent than the visu­al optics of top-down union “mobi­liza­tion,” often char­ac­ter­ized by a sea of match­ing and often ill-fit­ting t-shirts hand­ed out by staff orga­niz­ers. Uni­ty between dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories of work­ers was also made vis­i­ble with teach­ers wear­ing red ban­danas, staff wear­ing yel­low and oth­er pub­lic sec­tor work­ers in blue. Sen­a­tors and del­e­gates who sup­port­ed the strike wore “badges” which had a rib­bon rep­re­sent­ing each col­or to show their sup­port.  

Along with the con­stant, visu­al reminder of uni­ty, strik­ers stuck togeth­er in the face of an ini­tial agree­ment announced on Tues­day, Feb­ru­ary 27th, by Gov­er­nor Jim Jus­tice and union lead­ers that would have grant­ed teach­ers a 5% pay raise with low­er 3% rais­es for non-edu­ca­tion pub­lic sec­tor work­ers. When the deal was announced at a press con­fer­ence, strik­ers booed the gov­er­nor, as well as pres­i­dents of the AFT-WV and WVEA, Chris­tine Camp­bell and Dale Lee, ulti­mate­ly reject­ing the deal the fol­low­ing day, defy­ing the peri­od des­ig­nat­ed for “cool­ing off.” The vote launched a wild­cat strike, amid con­cerns about divide-and-rule-tac­tics, lack of motion on PEIA fund­ing, and fear that Jus­tice didn’t have the pow­er to force Repub­li­cans to bring a new bill to the floor, let alone pass one, and after Repub­li­can Sen­ate Pres­i­dent Mitch Carmichael indi­cat­ed that he didn’t accept the pro­posed deal. To many, the quick announce­ment of “vic­to­ry” amount­ed to a bait-and-switch designed to get the nation­al media spot­light off West Vir­ginia and break the strike.

That night, the map of school clos­ings on the state depart­ment of edu­ca­tion web­site was watched by bar patrons in a down­town pub as intent­ly as an elec­toral col­lege map dur­ing any pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The com­bi­na­tion of sup­port from super­in­ten­dents bound by “school safe­ty” con­cerns to shut­ter schools that wouldn’t have enough staff, and a kind of com­pet­i­tive sol­i­dar­i­ty that would have pub­licly embar­rassed teach­ers from hold-out coun­ties, pro­pelled the map to go full red for “closed” over the course of sev­er­al hours. In the end, this was the cru­cial moment that paved the way for a sec­ond deal one that grant­ed a sig­nif­i­cant raise to the whole state, rather than just school staff, and which estab­lish­es a basis for broad­er sol­i­dar­i­ty in the future.

But with­out the strike spread­ing beyond schools, it was impos­si­ble to win on the strikes main demand: fix­ing PEIA and fund­ing health care. The expe­ri­ence of build­ing statewide uni­ty between and among sec­tors of work and parts of the state that are usu­al­ly divid­ed by infr­a­class pol­i­tics is one that can be learned from and built on.

Teach­ers also cred­it­ed West Virginia’s his­to­ry of mil­i­tant coal min­ers’ strikes par­tic­u­lar­ly the Bat­tle of Blair Moun­tain as a liv­ing mem­o­ry that inspired uni­ty and mil­i­tan­cy in the strike. That argu­ment was borne out in the par­tic­u­lar mil­i­tan­cy of “rad­i­cals” from coun­ties in the south of the state, includ­ing Min­go coun­ty, remem­bered by labor his­to­ri­ans for the 1920 Bat­tle of Mate­wan and the John Lewis and Moth­er Jones peri­od of UMWA his­to­ry. More pro­saical­ly, but more impor­tant­ly, not a few 2018 strik­ers had pre­vi­ous­ly walked out in 1990, while many more sec­ond gen­er­a­tion teach­ers cred­it­ed their par­ents with their under­stand­ing of the his­to­ry of teacher strug­gle in the state; the direct expe­ri­ence and lega­cy of strug­gle means that there is a strong cul­ture opposed to “scab­bing” and cross­ing pick­et lines among union mem­bers, non mem­bers and the pub­lic at large. Over the last three decades, for instance, a small group of ded­i­cat­ed pub­lic sec­tor work­ers and advo­cates have manned “PEIA watch,” keep­ing track of cuts and their con­se­quences and expos­ing the com­plic­i­ty of elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives from both par­ties in drain­ing West Virginia’s work­ing class of basic resources for sur­vival.

Some of these fac­tors that strength­ened the strike self-orga­ni­za­tion on social media, inde­pen­dence from but coop­er­a­tion with union offi­cials, open vot­ing and debate, and sup­port from school super­in­ten­dents (who were under direct pres­sure from teach­ers on a day-to-day basis dur­ing the strike) are already being repli­cat­ed in else­where. Oth­ers, like the lived expe­ri­ence of strik­ing and par­tic­i­pat­ing in mil­i­tant union strug­gle, are hard­er to repli­cate.

Bernie or Bust?: On Red and Blue in West Vir­ginia

Much com­men­tary and reportage of the strike has empha­sized that it took place in “Trump coun­try” in a “red” state with a GOP-dom­i­nat­ed state leg­is­la­ture. Red was also the over­whelm­ing col­or of the strike: from teach­ers’ shirts and ban­danas to the coun­ty-by-coun­ty maps show­ing schools shut down statewide over the course of nine days. More than one teacher called up a deep­er sig­nif­i­cance to the choice of red, ask­ing me if I “know what ‘red­neck’ real­ly means,” before pro­ceed­ing to explain that red ban­danas harken back to the days of coal mine mil­i­tan­cy, when the term was coined as a pejo­ra­tive by coal boss­es to describe strik­ing min­ers iden­ti­fi­able not by the com­bi­na­tion of sun­burn and white skin as peo­ple often think, but by the red ban­danas they wore to sig­ni­fy union mem­ber­ship and rad­i­cal­ism.

The con­trast sug­gests the con­tra­dic­tions under­neath the sur­face-lev­el char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of West Vir­ginia as a Repub­li­can strong­hold. Gov­er­nor Jim Jus­tice him­self is a recent con­vert to the par­ty, and whether it was a dis­play of “good cop/bad cop” tac­tics dur­ing the course of the strike or a gen­uine dif­fer­ence of opin­ion, he cer­tain­ly did not appear to hold sway over a Repub­li­can-led Sen­ate. At one point on Thurs­day, Jus­tice was con­front­ed direct­ly by teach­ers as he rolled into the state house at 1pm in a two-SUV motor­cade where he promised to address the Sen­ate with teach­ers’ con­cerns. The Repub­li­can cau­cus not only blocked him from doing so, but they reject­ed his attempt to sim­ply address the cau­cus. Explain­ing his weak nego­ti­at­ing posi­tion to teach­ers, he sim­ply said, “well, I’m not the king!”

Until 2000, West Vir­ginia was a “blue” state in Pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, if unre­li­ably so, hav­ing gone for Rea­gan in 1985. At the nation­al lev­el, the WV shift took place in the first term of the Bush/Cheney era. At the same time, at the state house lev­el West Vir­ginia was most­ly blue until ten years lat­er in 2010. In the same vein, West Vir­ginia is one of the states in which Bernie Sanders won the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pri­ma­ry while in the gen­er­al elec­tion Don­ald Trump came out on top.

Strik­ers tend to describe the lack of polit­i­cal loy­al­ty to a giv­en par­ty or can­di­dates as “not about pol­i­tics”; this was true even as Repub­li­can state del­e­gates and sen­a­tors remained recal­ci­trant par­ty-line vot­ers in the ear­ly days of the strike. Instead, the goal for strik­ers in direct­ly nego­ti­at­ing with leg­is­la­tors was not only to pass a res­o­lu­tion for rais­es and (and health care fund­ing) but to make the nat­ur­al gas com­pa­nies in the state pay for the increased costs. In the days lead­ing to the strike, a strik­er was removed from the sen­ate cham­ber for read­ing out a list of cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions by gas com­pa­nies to sen­a­tors. In line on a rainy day Lynn* explained “we haven’t learned from our his­to­ry: from coal and tim­ber. We cant let the nat­ur­al gas peo­ple take our resources and our peo­ple and give noth­ing back. And the way they do nat­ur­al gas… they get in, they get out. It’s fast; it’s steal­ing.”

It’s true. West Vir­ginia has recent­ly become the lead­ing nat­ur­al gas pro­duc­er in the coun­try, up from ninth three years ago. While coal extrac­tion remains sig­nif­i­cant in the state and an impor­tant sym­bol of its reliance on ener­gy pro­duc­tion (includ­ing the governor’s own unpaid tax­es on coal extrac­tion), nat­ur­al gas is becom­ing increas­ing­ly impor­tant to the econ­o­my. And it’s an indus­try char­ac­ter­ized by short-term “boom” invest­ments often involv­ing cap­i­tal-inten­sive rather than labor-inten­sive process­es and a high lev­el of envi­ron­men­tal dam­age along with reliance on a mobile, tem­po­rary work­force. In West Vir­ginia, with its sin­gle-indus­try, ener­gy-based econ­o­my, it’s patent­ly clear who the ene­my is in work­ing class strug­gle, and teach­ers are clear­ly tak­ing aim.

If any fig­ure in state house pol­i­tics rep­re­sents this per­spec­tive, it is Demo­c­rat Richard Oje­da. In the first days of the strike, he intro­duced a bill that would have increased the “sev­er­ance” tax on nat­ur­al gas com­pa­nies. It was quick­ly shut down in a par­ty-line vote. As a result, his pres­ence in the state house dur­ing the strike had a rock-star qual­i­ty; he pro­voked cheers on appear­ance and could be seen hold­ing court with strik­ers on ses­sion breaks. Once a Trump vot­er him­self, Oje­da has recent­ly moved vis­i­bly to the left on social issues: a tat­tooed, buzz-cut, ex-mil­i­tary, for­mer social con­ser­v­a­tive, he brought down the house at an Ral­ly for Women’s Lives out­side the state­house while teach­ers chant­ed inside. Con­fess­ing his changed posi­tion on abor­tion rights, he said his “life would end” if he ever lost his wife to preg­nan­cy com­pli­ca­tions. At the same time his appeal under­scores a dan­ger of turn­ing work­ing class action in the state back toward a pop­ulist game of ping-pong between two rul­ing class par­ties.

Justice’s move to the Repub­li­cans and Ojeda’s move to the left rep­re­sent oppos­ing tra­jec­to­ries of West Virginia’s his­tor­i­cal­ly mixed par­ti­san­ship – a kind of rul­ing class cen­trist con­sol­i­da­tion around the far-right-led Repub­li­can Par­ty and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of left pop­ulism in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. The teach­ers’ strike exposed the weak­ness of right-pop­ulism in the state, root­ed most­ly in folksy aes­thet­ic put-ons by ener­gy execs like Jus­tice and attacks on women’s rights like the ongo­ing attempt to ban abor­tion in the state. First, dis­ap­point­ed by “3rd wave” Democ­rats using coali­tion pol­i­tics to attack work­ers’ rights and liveli­hoods it’s increas­ing­ly clear to teach­ers that Repub­li­cans are not the solu­tion, but part of the prob­lem that will not be solved through friend­ly local demeanor and promis­es of trick­le-down pros­per­i­ty. On the pick­et line, issues of women’s and queer rights seemed low pri­or­i­ty, but also sur­pris­ing­ly uncon­tro­ver­sial. While there was an obvi­ous effort to bridge dif­fer­ences between “social­ly lib­er­al” and “social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive” strik­ers, a live and let live atti­tude held sway. A few clocked me as some kind of gay and told me about les­bians they knew and loved or at least liked and tol­er­at­ed.

At the same time, a glance at the his­to­ry of state pol­i­tics and the his­to­ry of teach­ers’ strug­gles there helps to explain the weak­ness of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty; for twen­ty two years, Democ­rats were the par­ty pri­mar­i­ly respon­si­ble for under­fund­ing PEIA even after teach­ers set­tled the 1990 strike in good faith with an unful­filled “plan” to fix ris­ing health care costs. If teach­ers make good on their fre­quent­ly repeat­ed chant-threat to unsym­pa­thet­ic state­house politi­cians that they will “vote [you] out,” and vote Democ­rats in, its is appar­ent that they are like­ly to quick­ly reg­is­ter and reject Demo­c­ra­t­ic betray­al. Noth­ing inspires action like win­ning. It seems unlike­ly that teach­ers will wait again for three decades to see if under­fund­ed post-strike promis­es are ful­filled. The basis for a new polit­i­cal par­a­digm has been laid and sus­pi­cion of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has not been alle­vi­at­ed. That said, the inti­ma­cy and influ­ence of direct con­tact with politi­cians means peo­ple have a “wait and see” atti­tude and open­ness to any politi­cian who will take up their con­cerns, rather than a hard­ened stance against rul­ing class par­ties.  

Even in their suc­cess, we saw how this par­tic­u­lar rela­tion­ship to the state curbed the scope of the teacher’s prob­a­ble vic­to­ries. The deal they cut, for instance, does not ful­ly address PEIA fund­ing. Instead, in a move that echoes the con­clu­sion of the pre­vi­ous WV teach­ers strike 28 years ago, it grants a tem­po­rary freeze on hikes and promis­es to estab­lish a com­mit­tee that will inves­ti­gate the issue of full fund­ing. Mean­while, Gov­er­nor Jus­tice and oth­er WV Repub­li­cans float­ed the idea (not writ­ten into the teacher pay bill) that the raise would be fund­ed through Medicare cuts. West Vir­ginia strike lead­ers insist that plan is a non-starter for them, that it goes “against every­thing they struck for.” It seems to be still just a rumor, but one that demon­strates politi­cians’ real and ground­ed fear that class­wide and statewide uni­ty between respectable teach­ers and peo­ple addict­ed to opi­ates, between pub­lic employ­ees and the unem­ployed could get well out of hand.

Though the deal passed through the sen­ate this week doesn’t ful­ly address the ques­tion of PEIA fund­ing, Repub­li­can law­mak­ers insist that they plan to take state work­er pay rais­es out of the hide of Medicare recip­i­ents in the state. To be clear, the pay raise bill doesn’t spec­i­fy any Medicare fund­ing cuts. Con­crete­ly, one pos­si­bil­i­ty is that the net­works of social repro­duc­tion already orga­nized in the vic­to­ry of an across-the-board pay raise, along with the rela­tion­ships rein­forced through a social strike, can empow­er teach­ers to esca­late actions that could break through the bal­anced bud­get con­sen­sus.

One rea­son Repub­li­can divide-and-rule bait­ing about Med­ic­aid and and a drug epi­dem­ic drain­ing the state of resources found fair­ly weak pur­chase in the soil of teacher pol­i­tics is the degree to which teach­ers and school staff are not only per­son­al­ly famil­iar with but social­ly inter­twined with the state’s most poor and vul­ner­a­ble. At the same time, noth­ing impress­es like suc­cess; its pos­si­ble that the teach­ers exam­ple will embold­en oth­er groups of work­ers in the pub­lic as well as pri­vate sec­tors. Already, we’ve seen CWA (Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca) mem­ber who work at Fron­tier Com­mu­ni­ca­tions take strike action, now on its 8th day.

Social Repro­duc­tion Strikes and the Lim­its of the Pos­si­ble

What hap­pens next in West Vir­ginia, Okla­homa, Ken­tucky, Ari­zona, and Cal­i­for­nia has broad­er strate­gic con­se­quences. It remains an open ques­tion if strikes at the point of social repro­duc­tion can push the past the the hori­zons of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can pol­i­tics: “bal­anced” bud­gets that shift costs between dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the pro­le­tari­at. Can the rolling wave of teacher strikes clear a path toward the polit­i­cal recom­po­si­tion of the Amer­i­can work­ing class?

The vic­to­ry in West Vir­ginia is already a star­tling dis­play of the pow­er and promise of broad based sol­i­dar­i­ty. It was orga­nized, cru­cial­ly, through the inter­gen­er­a­tional mem­o­ries of sol­i­dar­i­ty in strug­gle. Pop­u­lar uni­ty from below was also built through the class­wide demands raised by school work­ers. Win­ning an across-the-board pay raise for all pub­lic employ­ees, after reject­ing a deal that tried to pit strik­ing edu­ca­tion work­ers against the rest of the state, proved to be a strate­gic wager worth repeat­ing across the coun­try. Final­ly, the strike was social­ized because of its loca­tion at a con­cen­trat­ed point of repro­duc­tion: schools. Like oth­er care work­ers, school employ­ees often have pos­sess high­ly artic­u­lat­ed rela­tion­ships with a wide range of soci­ety. Schools and hos­pi­tals sim­ply inter­face with more peo­ple than most oth­er work­places do, at least in an imme­di­ate sense. That these work­places are con­nect­ed to oth­er ‘kin­ship net­works’ mean that there’s an immi­nent pos­si­bil­i­ty that they can be acti­vat­ed polit­i­cal­ly, becom­ing a priv­i­leged site of class orga­ni­za­tion.

Now teach­ers across the coun­try will test whether the West Vir­ginia mod­el can be made a path­way to vic­to­ries in health care, work­ing con­di­tions and the dete­ri­o­rat­ing char­ac­ter of social life out­side of schools. These teach­ers share the over­lap­ping pres­sures of repro­duc­ing them­selves, their fam­i­lies and their stu­dents along with the increas­ing inten­si­fi­ca­tion and deskilling of work. Like their pre­de­ces­sors in Appalachia, they have deployed social media as an are­na of orga­ni­za­tion, where the appeals of a mil­i­tant minor­i­ty is echoed by com­ments from West Vir­ginia teach­ers egging them on. In both Okla­homa and Ari­zona, teach­ers have already pushed back on union lead­ers’ mod­er­at­ing sug­ges­tions, such as a late-semes­ter strike date and rolling walk­outs, opt­ing instead for soon­er, more mil­i­tant strike action. All over the map, it seems that all are just as “fed up” and “fired up” as those in WV.

But this new trench of strug­gles is unfold­ing in states that are big­ger, more diverse demo­graph­i­cal­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly, and often with state gov­ern­ments that have been solid­ly red from top-to-bot­tom for almost a decade. As a result, each has been a “Right-to-work” state for at least ten years, and has a deep­er his­to­ry of racist, sex­ist and xeno­pho­bic leg­is­la­tion that will make build­ing uni­ty with­in the strike, as well as poten­tial­ly beyond it, more dif­fi­cult than in WV. For these rea­sons, the strike action is also poten­tial­ly more pow­er­ful.

With these chal­lenges, it remains to be seen to what degree strikes there can repeat the social aspects of the WV teach­ers strike that built pub­lic sup­port for and account­abil­i­ty from strik­ing teach­ers from the ground up. A deep cul­ture of sol­i­dar­i­ty explic­it­ly root­ed in a his­to­ry of strug­gle is hard to repli­cate. That too may have to be built from the group up, though, as in West Vir­ginia, inspi­ra­tion may be locat­ed in the repressed his­to­ries of these states and revived for this moment. A sec­ond, even par­tial, vic­to­ry for Okla­homa or anoth­er of these loom­ing strikes will mean a “wave” is well under­way – and per­haps, after decades of defeat, not just the labor move­ment but the work­ing class has turned a cor­ner, led by women strik­ing for our lives and theirs.

*Names with aster­isks changed for those who pre­ferred to keep their quotes anony­mous. This report is based on 15 for­mal, open-end­ed inter­views with strik­ers includ­ing teach­ers, two bus dri­vers, one long-term sub­sti­tute and one teacher’s aid. It’s also based on 35 infor­mal con­ver­sa­tions with strik­ers and sup­port­ers of the strike.  

Author of the article

is a doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center in the department of Anthropology. She writes about work, women and queers, strikes and social reproduction, health and healthcare in the USA and South Africa. She is a member of in Red Bloom.