I have lived in the New York metro area for the past 40-plus years, but I am still from West Virginia. I watched the recent strike of teachers and school personnel, inspired by the serious grassroots organizing, the energy, persistence and solidarity they showed. That solidarity kept the school systems of all 55 counties of West Virginia on strike for nine days until the striking workers won a 5 percent increase in pay, passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, for all state workers and a commitment to the creation of a task force to develop a plan for the long-term, stable funding of the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA).
This solidarity didn’t come out of nowhere – there was a long, grassroots organizing campaign. The initial organizing push came from teachers in a few coal-field counties, and then with the support of the leadership of the state teachers’ unions, AFT-WV and West Virginia Education Association, grew into rallies at the state capital. The vote to hold a walkout was called by the state unions and passed in every county by teachers and school personnel. Locals organized for the rallies in Charleston, held pickets in their communities and arranged food distribution for the students in their schools. However, there are some specific things about West Virginia, its schools, its students and its communities that made this kind of solidarity a bit easier to achieve than in other places.
The reason there was such widespread support for the teachers and state workers is that solidarity was based on community and shared material conditions.
First, it helps to understand the size of West Virginia and its schools. West Virginia has a population of around 1.8 million people. The largest city in the state, the state capital of Charleston, has a population of around 50,000 people (to put this into perspective, New York City’s smallest borough, Staten Island, has about 475,000 people, according to the last census). The largest high school in the state has about 1,900 students, but a typical high school has about 600 students. A typical elementary school has in the range of 150 to 300 students.
These are intimate environments, to be sure. Public school teachers live in the same communities as the students they teach. Teachers shop at the same grocery stores as the families of the students they teach, they attend the same churches and their children attend the same public schools and play on the same sports teams as the children they teach. A town’s public schools might be its only real public spaces other than its post office, making it a vital part of the community. Teachers know the students in their schools; they know which students live with two parents or one parent or grandparents. They know which students rely on free or low-cost lunches and which students eat breakfast at school. They supply food for dinner and for the weekends for many of these students.
In early coverage of the strike, there were reports of the organizing by local teachers of sites where students and their families could pick up food while the schools were closed. The teachers worked with churches and the state and local food banks to set up these sites, some of them at picket locations. Some teachers even delivered meals to their students. The newspaper reports left us to fill in the reason for the food pick up sites, and that reason provides an important class dynamic. Over two-thirds of West Virginia students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches when school is in session and teachers would not leave their students hungry on any occasion.
West Virginia is a state with staggering poverty across the board. The teachers’ motivation for these food pick ups was part of a much larger statement about the economic crisis in the state. More than that, there was nothing transactional about the work of these teachers to see that their students did not go hungry; it was motivated completely by concern for the students’ welfare. But this demonstration of concern increased the support for the strike in the community because it led the parents and the students to understand that the striking workers were fighting not just for better pay and benefits for themselves, but for the education and welfare of their students.
PEIA WAS CENTRAL
Solving the PEIA funding problem was a major demand of the strikers from the beginning. More than 200,000 people in West Virginia get their health insurance through PEIA, not just school teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and school secretaries, but other public employees and people retired from those positions. The striking school workers were demanding adequate funding for the insurance plan that covers more than 10 percent of the people in the state, and that gave all those public employees and retirees a reason to support the strikers.
Specifically, the superintendent of schools in every county of West Virginia canceled school for the entire period that workers were out. School superintendents get their health insurance from PEIA, so they had a personal interest in the success of the strike, but they also knew that they could not successfully run a school with half of the teachers missing. If the bus drivers didn’t show up for work in West Virginia, there would be no students at school anyway.
While public school teachers are not permitted to strike legally in West Virginia, there are no specific legal penalties, and so far, there have not been reports of penalties for workers who went on strike. Some county school systems have shortened spring break, and others have added days onto the end of the year as is done for snow days. In essence, the administrators canceled work, and if work is canceled, the workers aren’t technically doing anything wrong by not coming in. This is not only a clever bit of organizing that gets around the state’s prohibition on striking, it speaks to the wider ability of the teachers to organize with other workers across the state.
Regardless, the entire ordeal has been inspirational to educational unionists nationwide.
“We commend your imagination and unity in fighting back against the sacrifice of education to accommodate the state’s lucrative energy corporations,” the PSC said in a statement of solidarity to the West Virginia teachers the day they returned to work. “In militantly rejecting this assault on your schools and your students, teachers in West Virginia set an example for public-sector workers facing a similar onslaught across the country.”
It continued, “We especially commend your dedication to your students throughout the work stoppage, during which you found ways to replace the free school meals and other support your students would ordinarily have received. We know that the financial stress caused by a strike does not end on the day the strike is settled, and we are proud to ask our members to continue to contribute to your strike fund.”