As the West Virginia teachers’ strike enters its second week, there is a growing sense in progressive circles – and among organized labor activists – that what’s happening in the Mountain State could mark the beginning of a movement that transcends the current impasse.
To start, there are now reports that teachers in Oklahoma, where Facebook has emerged as an organizing hub, and other states are considering similar action. But more than the potential domino effect, it is the durability of the now eight-day-long “wildcat strike” that has implications beyond West Virginia’s borders.
With the Supreme Court, which last week heard arguments in the case of Janus v. AFSCME, possibly on deck to cripple public sector unions around the country in June by banning the collection of mandatory dues, labor groups – stripped of their traditional bargaining powers – are being pushed toward new and more aggressive forms of collective action.
In West Virginia, a so-called “right to work” state, the public sector unions are already prohibited from requiring agency fees and hard-pressed to negotiate contracts, a set of rules that left the teachers in this current fight with little lawful recourse when the state repeatedly refused to meet their demands.
The strike, which began on February 22 when some 20,000 teachers hit the picket line, has now forced school closures in all of the state’s 55 counties. At stake are two apparently separate but deeply interwoven concerns: first, to secure a meaningful raise for educators whose compensation is among the lowest in the country and, second, though perhaps even more important, to come up with a fix for the Public Employees Insurance Agency, their embattled health coverage program.
Health care is a key element of the fight in West Virginia, where even the prospect of a modest pay hike is wiped out by declining benefits, which had until recently been a key draw to the public sector. Now, there are hundreds of teaching jobs unfilled – which further empowers the strikers, it’s worth noting – and increasingly strident demands for more robust health care spending. (Or, at the very least, a serious effort by lawmakers to stabilize funding after years of cuts.)
The anger isn’t new. Outrage has been brewing for months, years. The Charleston Post-Gazette described a tinderbox of frustration at a public hearing in Charleston last November and a sense – as teachers and their local union leaders railed against low wages and cuts to the Public Employees Insurance Agency – that extraordinary measures would be required to reroute the debate.
“Our Legislature wants to punish us yet again by raising our premiums, co-payments and deductibles,” said Amy Neal, president of the Cabell County American Federation of Teachers, before issuing a warning that, months later, still explains a lot: “You’ve woke a sleeping giant and that giant is mad.”
The giant is also increasingly strategic.
Before the strike began, teachers around the state packed meals for students and worked to arrange child care for parents. Community-based activities like that helped secure what looks like the broad backing of parents and students, who have joined protests in support of the striking teachers, cementing a bedrock of goodwill that state lawmakers now test at their own political risk. (Precisely how long the families stick by the teachers is also, of course, an open question.)
Their messaging has also matured. When a teacher waves a sign that says, “I’d take a bullet for your child but PEIA won’t cover it,” she is tying together a web of interconnected policy issues to create the sense of a crisis, raw and emotional, afflicting not only this group of educators, with their particular demands, but also the children in their care.
“You can’t put students first,” read another demonstrator’s poster, during a rally in early February, “If you put teachers last.”
Meanwhile, the last few days of negotiations seem to be tilting toward the teachers, even once they refused last week to return to work after union leaders struck a nonbinding deal with Republican Gov. Jim Justice.
Justice, who ran and was elected as a Democrat but then switched his affiliation back to Republican in August 2017, agreed to a 5% raise, a significant bump from the 1% he’d signed off on days earlier. But – and the teachers knew this – his word only goes so far. West Virginia labor laws require its (Republican) Legislature to sign off, too. So far, the state Senate has refused to go along on wages and done little to satisfy concerns over health care spending, a worry that Americans across the political spectrum prioritize even if they differ over the precise remedy.
It all adds up to something unexpected, something like solidarity.
In their pricey efforts to strip down the public sector unions, Republicans in West Virginia and across the country might well have sown the ground for something more radical, disruptive and, ultimately, effective.