By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Obviously, the West Virgina teachers strike is a big story, and potentially an enormous one, especially if it turns out to be the more successful cousin of the the Wisconsin State Capitol occupations of 2011 which followed Tahrir Square and preceded Occupy proper. (As we’ll see below, “teachers strike” is a bit of a misnomer, and that’s important, but I think we’re stuck with the phrase.) So I ought to present a general theory, or at least a hot take, but on working through the sources as best I could, I realized how little I knew of realities on the ground, so my ambitions for this post will be more modest. First, I’ll review the state of play; then, I’ll reinforce the demands — one of the nice things about a strike is that there is an answer to the question “What are their demands?” — that the teachers are making, as opposed to the demands that careless journalists say they are making; and then I’ll present a grab bag of interesting characteristics worth noting, partly about West Virginia, partly about this strike. I’ll conclude with some remarks on the role of the Democrat Party in creating the conditions that led to the strike.
First, one piece of background. There was a massive and successful eleven-day West Virginia teachers strike in 1990. The Charleston Gazette-Mail:
In March 1990, teachers across West Virginia refused to go to work and headed to the picket line, shutting down hundreds of schools for 11 days. They walked out after legislative leaders and Gov. Gaston Caperton were unable to come to an agreement on a package of pay raises.
The 1990 strike is often referred to as West Virginia’s first statewide teacher strike, but eight of the state’s 55 counties didn’t participate in the walkout.
Teachers returned to work after union leaders secured promises from state Senate President Keith Burdette and House Speaker Chuck Chambers to address teacher pay and other issues.
Among other results of the strike, teachers received a $5,000 pay increase, phased in over three years. That boosted West Virginia teachers’ salaries from 49th in the nation before the strike to 34th after the raises were implemented. Teachers also got new support and training programs, and money was set aside for faculty senate groups in every school, in an effort to give teachers more of a voice in education policy decisions.
Then as now, the strike was “unlawful” without being “illegal” (I’m not sure I understand that, either) but in any case nobody was arrested (even though, unbelievably, teachers have no right to collective bargaining in West Virginia, and their wages are set by the legislature). Two other differences leap out: In 2018, all 55 counties participated (the hash tag is #55strong), and this time, the rank and file rejected the “secured promises” obtained from the Governor by the union leadership.
The State Of Play
So far, the strike has gone through three phases: The build-up, the walkout, and the wildcat strike. Let’s look at each phase in turn.
Labor Notes has a good retrospective of the thinking and organizing during the build-up to the strike, sadly (or fortunately?) not made visible to the rest of the world by the press:
The first rumblings began late last year, when a group of teachers formed a secret Facebook page and started planning a “lobby day” at the state capital on Martin Luther King Day, when they knew the legislature would be in session. Word spread, and soon the West Virginia Education Association, the state’s NEA affiliate, was planning an official rally.
“This was almost completely a grassroots movement,” said Erica Newsome, an English teacher in Logan County. “The unions kind of followed us.”
Organizers estimate 150 people showed up. “The rally was kind of small,” said Ashlea Bassham, a teacher at Chapmanville Regional High School, “but then it just sort of happened.”
Teachers and school service employees started holding walkout votes county by county. West Virginia has two statewide teachers unions, affiliates of the AFT and NEA, which often compete for membership. There is also the West Virginia School Service Professional Association, or WVSSPA, which represents bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, and clerical workers. But teachers and school service employees decided that in this case, any school employee could vote—whether they were a member of any one of the unions or no union at all.
We now enter the walkout phase, marked by Capitol protests and rallies:
Strikers converged on the capital again. This time there were 1,000 teachers, public employees, students, and parents at the statehouse.
“The gallery filled up too quick for me and some co-workers to go in,” said Bassham, “So we waited in the breezeway to talk to our state legislators. Some of our representatives were willing to talk and take a minute and listen, and some of them had their heads down, walking really quickly.”
The legislature responded by announcing a temporary freeze to Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) premium increases, and offered a two percent pay raise in the first year.
At this point (February 27), the union leadership declared victory. The Payday Report:
After 4 days of striking, the West Virginia teachers’ union has reached an agreement to end their historic work stoppage.
Under the deal, the teachers would get a 5% raise during the first year. Initially, teachers had been offered 1% raise.
The state also agreed to appoint a task force to look into improving the troubled Public Employee Insurance Agency [PEIA], which insures the teachers.
The teachers will return to classes on Thursday after a brief cooling-off period.
In fact, that didn’t happen, and we enter phase three! The rank and file rejected the deal, turning the strike into a wildcat strike. Jacobin interviewed Jay O’Neal, a middle-school teacher and union activist in Charleston:
[O’NEAL]: As is the case these days, everybody was on their phones, trying to follow the news to get a sense of what was going on.
Within ten minutes, we found out through the governor’s press conference [not a good look!] that a deal had been reached. Teachers and school staff would get a 5 percent pay raise, and 3 percent for all state employees. The governor also said that a task force would be set up to figure out how to improve PEIA, our statewide health insurance plan for public sector workers.
Fifteen minutes after the press conference, union leaders came out and addressed the crowd. The basic problem was that they presented this deal as a victory. They told us we’d be out on strike one more day, then return to school on Thursday.
People were up in arms, really frustrated. Of course, a 5 percent raise is great, but what we’ve been really fighting for in this struggle is PEIA. This has been a huge issue, causing problems for years. They’ve been cutting our health insurance over and over, making it really expensive to survive.
So when it was announced that all we got on PEIA was a task force, people were upset.
In my county at least, the sentiment is that . Our biggest fear is that they’re just going to keep pushing back the question of PEIA.
(There was also a hilarious subplot where Governor Justice pulled “$58 million out of thin air” to pay for the raises, IIRC continuing a storied tradition in the state.) And in fact, the rank and file were right on the money, as hilarity ensues in the state legislature. The Charleston Gazette and Mail:
On Saturday evening, the Senate Finance Committee took up a pay raise bill passed by the House, and reduced the pay increase for teachers, school service workers and State Police troopers from 5 percent to 4 percent.
But the Senate then, mistakenly, passed the House version of the bill with the 5 percent raise, rather than the 4 percent version. After Senate leaders announced the mistake, senators walked back their passage vote and certain procedural votes, and passed the bill with a 4 percent raise after 9:30 p.m. Saturday.
House members wouldn’t agree to that change, and both sides appointed three members to a conference committee, which will try to hash out the differences on the bill.
“At this point, the three organizations announce that we are out indefinitely — we will not accept the 4 percent,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, speaking on behalf of his group, as well as the state arm of the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia School Service and Personnel Association, following Saturday’s committee vote. “Until this bill passes at 5 percent, we will be out indefinitely.”
Immediately after the committee amendment vote (the first time around), jeering broke out from the Senate gallery.
(Whether the Senate leadership was incompetent, or engaged in crude delaying tactics I cannot say.) The Conference Committee might meet Sunday, but the Senate reconvenes Monday at 11AM. So that is where we are.
What Are Their Demands?
All I’m going to do here is contrast the lazier headlines with what the striking teachers are saying. The headlines:
- W.Va. lawmakers try to give teachers smaller raise, accidentally pass bill giving them full raise The Hill
- West Virginia legislature can’t break impasse over raises for striking teachers CNN
- West Virginia teachers strike to go on over elusive pay deal Reuters
- West Virginia teachers: No raise? No school; strike goes on WaPo
- West Virginia teachers strike continues after senate cuts their pay raise FOX
But as we have already seen, health insurance (PEIA) was a key issue, besides the raise; that’s what teacher Jay O’Neal says above, that’s what teacher Katie Endicott told the New York Times, that’s what teacher Samantha Nelson told CNN, and that’s what the Charleston Gazette and Mail found in its reporting:
Many school employees interviewed say maintaining Public Employees Insurance Agency health insurance costs and benefits at their current levels is a bigger issue than pay increases. PEIA Finance Board members, at the governor’s urging, have delayed premium increases and benefit cuts, but teachers say that just delays the pain, and a long-term solution is needed.
That’s also what the Los Angeles Times found:
At the heart of the matter, teachers say, isn’t their salaries. It’s their soaring healthcare costs.
“We’ve seen [people say] ‘teachers are not happy with the 5% increase’ — that’s not it at all,” said Mary Clark, 49, a fifth-grade teacher in Monongalia County. “That’s not what kept us out. It’s the insurance. That’s the big deal.”
In West Virginia, teachers and other state employees receive health coverage through the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
The state program is funded 80% by employers and 20% by employees. That means as healthcare costs continue to rise significantly, the program’s long-term solvency requires “significant revenue increases in employer and employee premiums” over the next five years, according to an October 2017 financial report prepared for PEIA.
In other words, employees are going to need to pay up. “They are wanting to raise our rates,” Clark said.
But there’s a problem with that: After teaching for a little more than 10 years, “I’ve not seen [my take-home pay] go up any at all,” not even counting inflation, Clark said. If her healthcare costs increase, “that’s not feasible.”
Which is obvious when you think about it: What’s the point of a raise if your insurance company takes the money right out of your pocket, like you’re some sort of pass-through?
Bottom line here is to beware of any source that presents the raise (4% vs 5%) as the only, or even the main issue. That includes, as we have seen, much of the press, but also the Governor and the legislature, and the union leadership (at least as far as I can find). PEIA needs to be fixed, and not by some pissant kick-the-can-down-the-road [family blogging] commission, either.
West Virginia on the Ground
Now the promised grab bag: Items I noticed collecting information for this story that seem to be unique to West Virginia. The first two relate to the history and culture of the state; the final three are about this strike in particular.
Item one: The word “county.” Teacher O’Neal uses it in his interview above:
From below, , which is local to Charleston. We decided to have a meeting at 1 PM to try to straighten things out and to get some correct information. It was all super last minute, we had to plan it in a couple of hours. We met in a nearby church. The room was absolutely packed, with pews and aisles filled way past capacity.
And I ran across teachers talking about their counties constantly. Now, I don’t know what to make of this. I am very much from my place or patch in Maine, but I situate myself more in my town, or at the intersection of the Penobscot and the Stillwater Rivers; I don’t think myself as being from Penobscot County at all. Perhaps some West Virginia readers can enlighten us?
Item two: West Virgina has a storied labor history. State Senator Richard Ojeda, a Democrat, amazingly enough, in the Morgan County, USA blog:
“The teachers of West Virginia are not just fighting for themselves, our children or all public employees,” Ojeda wrote. “In my view, teachers in West Virginia are joining a fight for the soul and spirit of West Virginia that started hundreds of years ago.”
“Hundreds of years ago, investors came to West Virginia and purchased most of the land for all but nothing. Even today, you will be hard pressed to find many people in West Virginia who own their mineral rights.”
“They wanted our salt, timber and coal. They came in, paid our people essentially nothing for it and then put in the railroad. West Virginia has always been a colony.”
I’ll stop there, but it’s worth a read in full. (It’s is a rolled up Tweet storm from Ojeda, but I wanted to give a local site some hits.)
Item three, now on the strike itself: Feeding the schoolkids was a tactical masterstroke (as doing the right thing so often is). From Today:
During the four-day strike, teachers throughout West Virginia went out of their way to provide students with food. Teachers and staff at Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston prepared bagged lunches to send home with their students before they hit the picket line. Others worked with local food pantries to drop food off at students’ homes.
Item four: All school unions are involved, not just the teachers, unlike the 1990 strike (making the phrase “teachers strike” a misnomer). The Charleston Gazette Mail:
Teachers, this time joined by school service personnel, walked off the job Thursday…. The 1990 strike also did not involve public school service personnel, a category that generally includes non-teachers, like bus drivers and cooks.
This is a second tactical masterstroke (besides, again, being the right thing to do). Awkward situations described in this photo caption are avoided:
Protesters block school buses from leaving a garage during the West Virginia teachers’ strike on March 9, 1990.
This time, the bus drivers walked out with the teachers (which certainly does make it easier to enforce the school closures).
Item five: The teachers (and cooks and bus drivers and janitors and all school employers) are, as Ojeda points out, fighting for all West Virginia public employees, not just themselves, since PEIA stands for “ Insurance Agency.” A third tactical masterstroke (and again, the right thing to do).
Actually, having written the items, I now see a common thread between them, or at least for two through five: Solidarity.
“West Virginia Spring” may be over-stating the case, but the teachers strike — need a better phrase! — is already an interesting and potentially important flashpoint (especially if the teachers in Oklahoma follow their lead, or even Florida, if Florida teachers decide they don’t want to be security guards on top of everything else). Before I close, I did promise I’d have a word to say about the role of the Democrat Party in all this.
First, Governor Justice is a piece of work. Vice:
The towering Justice, who owns coal companies, resorts, and a host of other businesses, has emerged as the bete noire of the saga. He won his office running a Trump-like campaign as an outsider businessman, but at a Trump rally in Huntington last summer. As West Virginia’s only billionaire, Justice has developed a reputation for not paying taxes or federal fines—a fact frequently touted on signs and in conversations among the teachers striking for better pay.
Governor Justice, in other words, besides being self-funded, is a Blue Dog with the courage of his (Republican) convictions (rare, I know). He is, that is, exactly the sort of candidate that the DCCC is trying to foist on us to make sure, among other things, that #MedicareForAll “never, ever comes to pass.”
Second, West Virginia troubles with PEIA are due to tax policies suppported by both parties, very much including a second Blue Dog, Joe Manchin. HuffPo:
A decade ago, West Virginia began gradually winding down certain business taxes that could have helped pay for the across-the-board raises that teachers haven’t seen in four years. They also could have helped fill the funding shortfall in the Public Employee Insurance Agency, or PEIA, which many workers list as their top concern.
Although Republicans now control both chambers of the statehouse, the tax cuts that Over the following years, the state wound down its corporate net income tax rate from 9 to 6.5 percent, and phased out its business franchise tax. It also slashed its tax on groceries from six to three percent, and later did away with it entirely under Manchin’s successor, Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin. Over the same span, the state also created a family tax credit, increased its homestead exemption and got rid of an alternative minimum tax and corporate charter tax, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
All told, those cuts diminished state revenue by more than $425 million each year, the center estimates.squeezed the state budget were a bipartisan undertaking. Then-Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who’s now one of the state’s two senators in Washington, had urged legislators to pursue the tax cuts in 2006, arguing that West Virginia needed to slash taxes on corporations in order to be competitive with other states.
(Of course, the best way to fix PEIA would be to remove health insurance from its remit entirely by passing #MedicareForAll. Manchin, naturally, does not support that.)
I’ll close with The New Yorker’s perspective:
“Appalachia was not different from the rest of America,” the Appalachian historian Ronald Eller wrote ten years ago, in his history of the region, “Uneven Ground.” “It was in fact a mirror of what the nation was becoming.” Maybe that is the real source of the suspense, in the conflict between educators wearing red and the Trump-supporting governor: it isn’t at all obvious whether these teachers are professionals in a middle-class place or workers whose footsteps get tracked by an app, because it isn’t at all obvious what the nation is becoming.
 Whinging a bit: Google News gets worse and worse, so it’s hard to find stuff; newsrooms are being slashed, which means there’s less to find; the labor beat, at least in the newsroom, is a thing of the past; and social media nuked a lot of the small blogs (and Facebook search is miserably inadequate, even if it weren’t so toxic I can’t bring myself to use it anymore). All of which is by way of asking readers, especially West Virginia readers, for local sources I should be looking at. Surely there are some small West Virginia political blogs worth reading?
 Not, of course, “secret” to Facebook. Gawd knows who Facebook was selling that data to.
 See this clickbait tear-jerker from CNN: “This 6th-grader helped end West Virginia teachers’ strike.” Always “this.” Never “these.”
 Stoller comments:
13-dimensional chess alert, Obamacare was structured so badly that higher health care costs are inducing a revival of the labor movement. https://t.co/vVcSgcwQyh
— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) March 3, 2018
 Although it’s worth noting that the Quebec printemps érable — a really horrible pun, think about it — student strike was also in the education sector.
 “Higher” education should take this to heart, I think.
 This is a reference not only to Amazon warehouse workers, but to West Virginia teachers. Katie Endicott: “They implemented Go365, which is an app that I’m supposed to download on my phone, to track my steps, to earn points through this app. If I don’t earn enough points, and if I choose not to use the app, then I’m penalized $500 at the end of the year.”
I am filled with admiration at the courage of the W. Va. school employees. But I find it hard to imagine it’s transferrable to states without a strong labor history like W. Va. Here in “Live free or die” NH, for instance, such a thing seems well-nigh impossible. I write as one with more than 25 years of public teaching experience. But if/when things continue to worsen, it serves as an example of what’s possible, and of the strength in numbers.
You’re not alone, Kilgore Trout: I’m in my 21st year of teaching in NYC, and despite being “a union town” and one of the first beachheads for the viciousness of so-called education reform, the overwhelming majority of my colleagues are clueless and apathetic
Here in Seattle (16 year teacher), also supposedly a last remaining labor stronghold, I can’t say if we’d be up to the test of a wildcat strike. I kinda doubt it.
I couldn’t be prouder than of WV teachers. They’ve done things exactly the right way, letting everyone with a stake vote, union or not, and the food deliveries Lambert mentioned, emphasizing their caring relationship with the community they serve. The fact that they have done this without the help of their own union leadership, speaks volumes about their determination and solidarity (what does it say about the union leadership, I wonder? Or am I missing something here?)
I’m at year 12 teaching in Seattle – we had a Strike! Which!! Changed!!! History!!!! at the start of the 2015-16 school year, and then all kinds of teachers got back to working themselves into early graves & to proving who is The Better Doormat!
We will most certainly continue engaging in Potemkin kind of activism – people will feel good, and will use the word “power” quite a bit.
This year I broke down and bought the most appropriate protest T-shirt I could find – It has a picture of this goofy teenage boy & the caption “What, Me Worry?”
“Goofy, teenage boy” … is that not the inestimable Alfred E. Newman?!
You’re a confirmed homo sapiens. You’ve just admitted being a pedagogue. I suspect you even practice philately.
This was inevitable. Insurance costs in the US have gone out of control and are eating into salaries more and more. This is not just an issue for teachers, by the way, who have seen years of stagnant salaries (in real terms, that means pay has declined).
Keep in mind that a victory here might spread. Much like how Reagan’s firing of the Air Traffic Controllers led to widespread anti-union actions, if the teachers win this won, it might lead to concessions across the entire economy.
On the other hand, it could end up like Wisconsin. We don’t know yet. I expect the Democrats to try to shove down more neoliberalism down everyone’s throat though.
The US could learn a thing or two from the rest of the world on strikes. We also need to see more private sector strikes.
Six years after Reagan fired the PATCO strikers, the replacements formed their own union.
The issue is that after the Patco strike and firings, it sent a clear statement to the private sector that they could crack down on unions and labour without the consequences that they once had to deal with.
Before that, it was never perfect, but it at least the corporations had to make some concessions ti labour. After that it was more and more toward open season.
The crackdown on Unions by the Reagan Administration was the message from the PATCO strike. It was made to fix the wage price stagflation of the 70s. NIxon’s war deficits and OPEC’s gas price increases started it but the workers in unions got their CPI wage increases .followed by wage increases in the private sector, Inflation continued until the Volker recession.
i think it was mainly made to destroy the power of unions.
Yes, it was. The anti-union sentiment was there from the beginning, but mainly the source was the autocrats running major businessmen. After Franklin Roosevelt strengthened unions, the plutocratic underground has wage a propaganda war against unions to the extent that working class people are espousing anti-union rhetoric. The sad thing is the union movement has done very little to counter this.
The Powell Memo outlined the plan, Reagan used the stagflation as an excuse to drive a wedge between unions and the remainder of the workforce but blaming the disruptions caused by OPEC, blow back to bad ME policy and dropping the gold standard, on unions.
“by”, not “but” as written in the last sentence above
Read Democracy in Chains and Dark Money to find out about, and I know what it sounds like, the right wing conspiracy to take control of the country The goal was established by Lewis Powell and before him others who want business to be unfettered and allowed to do what businesspeople want to make profits and make themselves as rich as possible. Public unions are the last bastion of union influence on public policy. They must be stopped to continue the Koch brothers and others ongoing march to control the nation.
I remember those days, and the unions were part of the problem. I think they got spoiled; they used to brag about their “partnership” with business. And they chained themselves, apparently inextricably, to the Democrat Party. PlusI think they forgot how to organize in the face of hostility, which is how they originated. That’s one way this strike is a good sign.
It is not an accident that the W. Virginia schools strike is now a wildcat strike; the unions settled, the workers didn’t.
The way I heard it, the unions and the government settled but the teachers waited until the deal was finalized by the Senate. The lower house already did as they were up for election but the Senate reneged which proved that the teacher’s were right to suspect a trap.
It’s not insurance costs that are out of control: MEDICAL COSTS ARE OUT OF CONTROL. True, insurance doesn’t help, since there is an added layer of bureaucracy and profit-taking, but medical costs are driving the rise.
Guess what- one way to lowering medical costs is removing as much non-medical cost from that cost. Single payer does that- no more overhead devoted to collecting from numerous insurers and no more patients who can’t pay.
Add to that bargaining power of a single payer (applied to care and meds), the benefits of a single risk pool, and the elimination of for-profit middlemen.
That’s real money, and in top of that there’s more efficient care, lower employer costs, and no loss in quality of care.
“Which is obvious when you think about it: What’s the point of a raise if your insurance company takes the money right out of your pocket, like you’re some sort of pass-through?”
It’s not just workers facing the takeaway of raises by increased medical costs.
My wife and I received our big 2% Social Security increase this year. With the rise in the Medicare deduction from our benefit we both ended up with a $0.26 (26 cents) monthly increase in our Social Security check.
“Cost” is a much misused term for price-gouging! A price is one way to represent a “cost” according to “free-market” Milton Friedman types (not that I buy into their overall belief-system).
We need price transparency. How much is payed by who and for what to whom? The chargemaster needs to be made public at every hospital, clinic, and pharmacy.
Thank you for this. Some additional thoughts:
Another feature of the strike is the crowd-sourced strike fund: >$150K raised so far.
It’s interesting to see strike issues now tied to tax policy – tax breaks for individual and corporate resource extractors, but no money for schools. Oklahoma too (link is to a tweet of a screenshot of the teachers’ fb page, which doesn’t seem to be a public page).
I could be wrong, but the ability to crowd-source a strike fund might just be the game changer many of us have been waiting for. Especially now, when do-nothing politicians are begging for “donations” to fund their, mind-numbingly worthless campaigns.
Send the money instead to people who’ve proven that they know what to do with it, and the stones to do it.
K.E.: The same occurred to me. Labor law and its protections have been gutted. Unions are run on a shoe string, and the Democrats want unions that are toothless ATMs (to mix metaphors). No politician has the guts to call right-to-work what it is (state-sponsored wage theft) and demand repeal of right-to-work laws (because the dignity of labor is so nineteenth-century, ya know?).
Technically, engaging in boycotts and other “secondary” agitation is illegal.
So what is left? We crowd-fund workers’ strike funds.
I like it. It’s catchy. And it’s so damn simple. Why didn’t we think of this already?
Maybe crowd sourcing for more grassroots-level Union funding in general could be a way to lift a huge middle finger to the right-wing think tanks and the Supremes, should the Janus decision go the way most are predicting?
On the sillier side: could that also be a name for a new parody soul group?
You mean “A Huge Middle Finger”?
I agree. I just made my first-ever donation through GoFundMe to the WV Teachers Strike. I also mentioned that I have been following the strike on Naked Capitalism and Jacobin. Cathy Kunkel’s article appears in the Jacobin. She is one of the strike organizers through RiseUp WV. I have read she is also connected with Working Families Party.
The Republicans in WV and Wisconsin (and other states) have made these teaching jobs so miserable that when they strike it is probably impossible to find scabs to break the strike. Crapifying the job is biting back at these legislators.
You gotta love those unintended consequences.
Most southern states organize schools at the county level – teacher paychecks are issued from the county school system. There is one school board per county – it serves all of the public schools in that county. Teachers can move between schools inside the county without changing employers. Unlike school boards in most northern states, southern county-level boards are not empowered to place bond issues or school levies on the ballot. County commissioners are responsible for funding any supplements to teacher pay, etc. In North Carolina and much of the rest of the south, counties may supplement state salaries anywhere from 0 to several thousand dollars.
Most southern states do not permit public sector employees to unionize. You can join a public employee association and voluntarily pay dues but state and county officials have no obligation to negotiate with such associations. The associations lobby legislatures and governors and try to obtain public support. It’s not at all clear to me that what are being called WV teachers “unions” have any more power than the public employee “associations” in the rest of the south.
One of the difficulties of settling a public-sector labor dispute in a right-to-work state is illustrated in WV. Any “unions” represent a small fraction of the workers and have no real collective bargaining authority. It’s tough to negotiate when your union/association represents fewer than 10% of affected workers.
It would be worse in North Carolina where we make public-sector collective bargaining and unions illegal by statute. In the unimaginable event of a public sector work-stoppage here, there would be nobody authorized to negotiate a settlement.
West Virginia is mixed. The northern and eastern panhandles have Yankee outlooks.
Hah! Give the eastern panhandle to Maryland, the northern one to Ohio, and the rest back to Virginia. Macro Gerrymander.
Then give virginia’s Bit of Maryland’s tail to Maryland.
I’m from Iowa. We’re obsessed with counties, not towns. In truly rural areas, the power lies in the county seat, which was often stolen from another town in the county at some point in history. The towns are SMALL and the counties encompass most of the places where you shop.
Never gave it any thought until now but when I tell people I graduated from high school in Osage, I always mention that I’m from Floyd county and not Mitchell county where Osage is. Because it makes a difference to me and people from around there.
Also, just to add in to what Greg says, in W.Va the PEIA is the consolidated health benefits source for state and local employees (counties and municipalities). So, altough the teachers are county employees, they receive many of their non-cash benefits from the state. This includes benefits such as retirement (thru WVCPRB) and insurance. The state of Tennessee operates similiarly.
I’d say I don’t count as a WV reader anymore, but I grew up in Charleston, delivered the Gazette (before it merged with the Daily Mail) for most years between the ages of 11 and 18. I remember the teacher strike of 1990, but its vague since I was only 7. As for a sense of county as place. You must remember that counties in WV are much smaller than Maine (9th smallest average area in the country). I worked a job downeast many summers. Penobscot county is over 3,500 sq mi contrasted to Kanawha county’s 911 sq miles. So it really is more like, the city where the Elk river meets the Kanawha plus about 14 miles outside of it all around.
I don’t know how how Maine works, but in WV, the county is the unit of government, including county boards of education.
The coverage on NPR maintains radio silence on the teachers’ health care, focusing solely on the salary issue
and the tug of war between the House of Delegates and the Senate. Elevator
musicnews for yuppies.
The local public radio and especially West Virginia Morning have kept up with the story pretty well, including the emphasis on the insurance problems. The state’s public radio in general does a good job of local storytelling, a lot different from NPR. Inside Appalachia and The Front Porch make great listening and you’ll get a good feel for what’s going on in the area.
Interesting to note the strike is all but invisible on the Democratic Party network msnbc. Teachers, the identity they don’t give a damn about. Feel free to substitute the word workers for teachers.
And I thought the Johnny Cash song, “I walk The Line” was about a guy in prison.
So, what has the Democratic Party done for the teachers in West Virginia?
Maybe teachers could start their own political party as an alternate to the Democrats.
There are large numbers of them nationwide, they have sympathy from other other public employees and parents as well. I’m serious.
The Teachers and Nurses Party perhaps. Not a bad idea imo.
This is starting to spread (http://paydayreport.com/west-virginia-teachers-strike-fever-starting-spread-states/). You think that Trump will do an Obama and send in Federally coordinated local police to break them up and throw them in jail as happened with Occupy Wall Street?
Doubt it. Would spoil his working class persona.
Big o never tried, just spouted a few words every few years. ‘I’ll put on my walking shoes’… still waiting, but maybe he’s got the time now?
Corporate media will downplay it; but, sooner or later, if you chain down the middle class, it will bite back. With one billionaire and he is the Governor; servants to the rich in West Virginia are few and isolated to the state capitol. The only way to increase civil service wages is increase the taxes on extractive industries. Good luck to the colonies across the world trying doing that. One alternative to higher wages is Medicare for All. If adopted it might lower the strain on the chains for a while. But, the lack of good paying jobs and the costs of food, education and shelter remain. When the credentialed class realizes that they have been suckered; coastal city children are just as inconsequential as Mountaineers’, the current winner takes all system blows up.
A really informative piece. Thank you Lambert!
Yes, stirring! Excelsior, dear leader!
Great analysis! Thank you for emphasizing the importance of healthcare, which has been downplayed by everyone except rank and file teachers and service personnel. I’ve lived in WV for almost 8 years, here are a couple of my pieces on the strike:
On the county question — yes, county identity is strong, and also both of the teacher unions (AFT-WV and WV Education Association) are organized into locals by county.
I agree with Stillfeelinthebern: Thanks for covering the strike. Yves Smith also urged us groundlings to contribute to the strike fund, which helped.
What to call this event?
Someone pointed out in a comment a few days back that the model here is industrial unionism as opposed to crafts unionism. It is remarkable that we are finally talking again about the two kinds of unionism in the U S of A and their effectiveness.
Wildcat strikes like these were always a characteristic of anarchosyndicalists. (Amazing to contemplate. Let’s see more of them, please. The powerful truly hate wildcat strikes, awful inconveniences when the servants don’t know their place, you know.) “Anarchosyndicalist”–I can’t believe that I just typed that. And in West Virginia. Enlightening times.
But I’d say that what we are seeing here is the model for a general strike, something just about unprecedented in U.S. history and long overdue. Ties across classes / jobs / status. Concern for support systems and concern for the strike’s effects on the vulnerable. Very specific demands. A strong sense of the number of days that the strike can last.
Maybe, then: The West Virginia School Strike of 2018.
Or, as a thought experiment, how about a nationwide income tax strike of small businesses and independent contractors refusing to file?
That would garner some attention. Following the Pareto Principle, would 4% or 20% be the magic number of participants needed to crash the system and extract some real concessions from the Man?
You do NOT want to get in a fight with the IRS. You will lose.
First, the IRS is the only place where you are guilty until proven innocent. The burden of proof is on you.
Second, if you have not filed taxes, they can assess them based on assumed income levels using a whole host of foundations: your past tax returns, 1099s (which people have to file if they are to take tax deductions themselves), or even just earnings of sorta similar filers in your ZIP code.
Third, if you have not paid a deficiency, they can garnish assets, usually 2x the amount owed. That means they can go to your bank and tell your bank to take money out of your account. I nearly had this happen with NYC when they had failed to credit a $5k payment (and I really had made it, the check had cleared). I had no idea there was any problem until Citi sent me a letter saying NYC was about to seize $10K. And when I got the agent, he was completely nasty, said he didn’t care that I had actually paid and could fax a cancelled check to prove it, he could and was gonna take the money and I’d have to fight to get it back. But my accountant called his supervisor and dressed him down and got him to reprimand the agent.
Thanks, Yves Smith. First, although the IRS isn’t all that difficult to deal with, you certainly don’t want to cross it.
Second, the point of a strike it to withhold one’s work. Withholding taxes mainly contributes to the fantasies of the gubmint + black helicopters types. (If you genuinely want to be a tax-striker, you have to follow the example of the war resisters, who withheld the war contribution for years and years and risked jail. Partial payment is how to gum up the works.)
Third, the problem with a tax strike is that it is withholding money already earned, which makes it a “strike” by the comfortable, which means that compliance is going to be minimal and often self-serving. The point of a strike of workers is to down tools, everyone together making the same point, instead of fifteen knitting-shop owners thinking that they are going to manipulate the IRS. And I do like yarn!
Lambert, thank you so much for your wonderful coverage of this inspiring movement!
Now that Obama is out of office, maybe he can put on his comfortable shoes and walk the picket line with the teachers in support of them
Oh God no, I would prefer Obama (and Pelosi, Perez, Clinton, etc.) stay put in his office. The right would have a field day. Plus, look at Occupy and BLM – as soon as Democrat stooges took power they neutered those movements. It’s funny, usually to put the kibosh on a movement you’d want to cut off the head. However the Dems seemed to have figured out that the opposite of decapitation (capitation??) can kill off movement as well.
Occupy didn’t have “heads”. As one of them commented, “why would we give them a sacrificial lamb?” This may have been the Dems’ real objection; no way to buy off the leaders.
I suspect this was a bit of a fiction; I think we were walking next to the de facto leaders of the Portland march, for a few minutes. They certainly led the initial gathering. But the assembly system served to mask the key organizers. A good plan, while it lasted.
There were several reasons the clearances worked; the main one may have been that winter was coming. And I think Occupying parks was a tactical error; not sufficiently in the way. Tahrir Square is the city center, and a busy traffic area. And they defended it, violently enough.
In truth, Occupy left a substantial legacy, including a lot of expreienced people. I think we’re waiting for the next time.
Jimmy Dore now has a clip up on the West Virginian strike at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AilbSwEWYH8
It would be wonderful to see strong unions again, Both my Mother and an Uncle were presidents of their Unions back in the day.
My uncle was a longshoreman, talking to him and to members of the IWW and other men and women who fought for worker’s rights in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s is the primary reason I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment.
While the FBI has pretty much supplanted the Pinks in controlling the rabble does any reader of NC doubt for a moment that Governor Justice would bring in Blackwater to break this strike if he could get away with it?
Here’s chapo trap house’s podcast on it with one of the teachers as the guest. According to him its the gamification of their health insurance is what triggered this strike – https://soundcloud.com/chapo-trap-house/episode-190-schools-out-feat-michael-mochaidean-3418
On the WV counties, DG sends mail:
I appreciate your coverage of the WV teachers strike. I was born in and live in WV. I have been a long time reader of this blog going back to the financial crisis. It has been a great source of information and education to me. I believe you have hit upon the most important points in your analysis.
In terms of county identity/organization other commenters have described the situation correctly. One thing to add is that most rural counties only have one high school and hence only one HS football team. This leads to county rivalries of course and a sense of identity based upon the county.
Due to declining population many schools have been consolidated over the years. Currently, there is a pretty nasty fight over consolidation in Nicholas county that you mention. Richwood and Summersville are indeed in the same county. After the flood that you mention there was a move by the local board of education to consolidate both Richwood and Summersville high schools into one. People in Richwood were opposed to that and after a trip or two to the courts the parties are now in mediation.
In large population centers there a multiple high schools in each county. It may be somewhere near a 50/50 split in terms of counties with a single high school and counties with multiple high schools.
I hope the teachers and service personnel get what they demand in terms of a raise and improved health care. I also hope that their strike continues to inspires others.
Thanks for the informative and sobering article NC.
I’m especially pleased that the workers are leading the union(s). This is the way unionisation is supposed to work. Formal organisations are the framework, administrative and historical repositories of labour, the workers and the communities in which they live are the union.
Having said that, whoever (singular or plural) came up with the ideas of feeding the children, incorporating all school workers, etc. are showing great organisational insights.
The phrase “as doing the right thing so often is” seems like a very good guiding principle that could be carried forward by a vast array of organisations who are looking to uphold the rights of citizen commons.
Thanks for pulling this together, Lambert. I’d suggest we also keep our eyes on Oklahoma, where teachers are drawing on the WVa playbook and talking of a walkout in April, when standardized testing is done.
We should be on the lookout for the development of a ruling class response. Mapping the interplay between austerians and privatization vultures will be “interesting.”
I have both active & retired Texas teachers in my family who have also seen great increases in their health insurance premiums & deductibles. Retired teachers are now leaving the plans, which creates insurance funding problems for active teachers. In the first link notice the premiums, and scroll down to the bottom for the new retirement benefits & related article about retired teachers going back to work to afford their new premiums.
Fantastic post, Lambert. Your ability to synthesize information from a myriad of sources and do it really quickly is without peer.
You make a good point that “teacher’s strike” seems to be in a category of its own and is different from regular “strike” or “workers’ strike” in US culture. I think in general, teachers are regarded sympathetically, and a largely female workforce may be harder to demonize. So, while “teacher’s strike” maybe something of a misnomer in this case, and seem dismissive of the myriad other workers that keep a school running, it may be a phrase that we want to stick with.
Thank you SO MUCH for this . . . I learned so much more about what is going on and it’s inspiring. I kicked in $100 to the strike fund.
I’m a Texas teacher and health care, scratch that, insurance costs are eating us alive. I’m sure this true for all workers. I’m going to donate to those brave teachers in West Virginia. Solidarity!
Yours for The One Big Union
Democracy Now! devoted this morning’s show to the WVA teachers. First problem is the low pay and many teachers have second and third jobs. Biggest problem is the health insurance premiums. The state wants to change how it assesses what to take out of a teacher’s pay to cover the cost. The new assessment will double what a teacher pays into the system. And in the case of two teachers who are married to each other, the effect would be even worse. A 5% raise would not cover the cost of a higher premium and teachers would take home even less pay.
The situation was years in the making. As you point out, the WVA legislature gives out tax breaks to corporations so there is less and less to fund schools and teachers. The unions objected to this three years ago and were ignored.
I have said for years that what this country (and the rest of the world) needs is a populist revolution. I hope this is only the beginning.
Probably a pipe dream, but one scenario is the teachers holding out until they receive insurance with no deductible. If the counties can’t afford the premium, then appeal to the state, who can then appeal to Uncle Sugar to pay the costs because as we all know, the federal government can pay for whatever they want to.
Somehow forcing the feds to make up any differences in insurance that the state can’t pick up might be a backdoor way of getting to single payer. Probably better to have single payer from the get-go to avoid any unintended consequences – I can see a reimbursement scheme being ripe for graft – but at this point the convoluted reimbursement method is far better than what we have now and the onus of payment would at least be off the sick person.
I donated to the gofundme. It’s nice to be able to do something, at least. Thanks for following this story.
55 is a lot of counties for a fairly small state. Maybe they’re equivalent to school districts?
So that was a good guess, but superfluous. Thanks to those that clarified.