West Virginia Teachers Tell How Passion -- and Solidarity -- Helped Win their Struggle

West Virginia teachers and organizers came to Shirlington’s Busboys and Poets restaurant on March 27 to share the tale of their action.

The state’s teachers’ strike had been coming for a long time. Schools in West Virginia were down over 700 teachers and the Republican legislature was conceiving limiting or doing away with educational credentials. One of the big reasons was that the pay, health insurance system, and retirement systems were so complicated. Teacher income varied depending on whether they were single or married, as well as by their spouse’s income. And the pay was marginal. Most of West Virginia was behind the teachers, including the school superintendents. The biggest support came from the coalfield areas.

The national and local press only reported the pay issue and ignored other major issues. The media often failed to mention that all school workers went on strike, including the cafeteria workers, custodial staff, and state employees as well.

Much coordination had been done by the time of the announced strike. The 55 county supervisors had been notified and they all canceled school for the days of the strike, which meant that no school workers lost pay. In West Virginia, as a right-to-work state, you lose pay if you strike and the supervisors made sure that did not happen.

The Republican governor called the teachers “a bunch of rednecks,” which only increased union support. Wal-marts in the state ran out of red bandanas. One origin of the word “redneck” was a labor battle in West Virginia where the company goons battled against the miners. It seems a few people in the state remembered that. The strike kept going till the governor signed an agreement.

Teachers, support staff, and others set up centers for meals for students that needed a free breakfast or lunch. Dairy Queens, Hispanic restaurants, and others provided food, too, as well as people in San Francisco that paid local pizza places to deliver pizzas. AFL-CIO unions lent their support, too.

Some teachers’ unions found that their membership increased to 80 percent of the school employees after the strike. The strike could be a model for other states, like Oklahoma. [Action in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona has followed the West Virginia example, as described here and here – ed.]

Red states like West Virginia and Oklahoma have unique contradictions compared with progressive sister states. Both states have significant fossil fuel industries and workers well paid by those industries. It is said that it is difficult to teach someone something that their paycheck requires them not to understand. Many progressives are in states less impacted by fossil fuels, and progressives understand that getting rid of those fuels is necessary to stop climate change. Meanwhile, fossil fuel industries would rather take over governments than change the type of energy they work with. We are in for a long struggle.

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