Victory for West Virginia Teachers: Six Key Takeaways

Editor’s note: This post was co-authored by Sejal Singh and Meg Sri.

West Virginia teachers came to win! After a massive nine-day teacher-strike which closed schools across every county in West Virginia, teachers this week secured a five percent raise and a hold on skyrocketing healthcare costs. Now, the West Virginia teachers are inspiring working women across the country — and proving that progressive organizing and collective action, not milquetoast centrism or reactionary racism, is the way to win in so-called Trump Country.

Here are our biggest takeaways:

  1. Strikes work — and we need to see more of them.  As Joe Burns has written, the West Virginia strike is reminiscent of the “strike wave” of the 1960s and 1970s, where work stoppages and strikes made policymakers buckle to the demands of public service workers. West Virginians have been trying to achieve critical gains through the ordinary political process for years: contacting legislators, going to PEIA hearings. Seeeing no action, they mobilized 30,000 women and men to say enough is enough — and managed to secure a victory that the status quo and political establishment was not willing to concede to them.  Workers’ strikes operate on a simple but powerful idea: no amount of violent repression can take away the centrality and importance of the workforce, without whose ultimate support public services simply could not operate. West Virginia had too many striking teachers to be jailed or punished, and their work was too valuable for politicians to ignore for long. In an age of mass disempowerment and helplessness, the West Virginia strike brings us back to the ultimate power of the worker and our own capacity to force our political ends through the tool of the strike.
  2. Ballooning healthcare costs are forcing workers to organize. Mid-way through the strike, union leaders cut a deal with lawmakers for a 5% pay raise, only for teachers to reject the deal. Why? Because rapidly rising healthcare costs are choking teachers. High school teacher Daniel Summers told the LA Times that his pay usually goes up about $700 a year — but this year, his insurance premiums may go up by $300 per month. As rising costs put basic healthcare out of reach for many (and right-wing attacks on Medicaid and the ACA continue) you can bet we’ll see more of this.
  3. Unions (still) matter. Union militancy in West Virginia has deep and historical roots that contributed to the strength and efficacy of the strike. This matters now more than ever, with union membership among workers in the United States at a historic low, and conservatives are attempting to use the Supreme Court to decimate public sectors unions. Women and people of colour benefit the most from unions, and black women, who are disproportionately represented in public sector jobs, could stand to lose the most from this systemic gutting. Teachers in West Virginia have warned that the extreme repression of union activism could lead to a militant revitalization of unions and collective action, and such revitalization is critical to strengthen the working class, and communities of color, and bring their voice to the forefront of the political agenda.
  4. Liberal pundits don’t get Trump Country. Remember the approximately 234,948 post-election liberal thinkpieces about the “forgotten people” of Trump Country? Many elite writers like Mark Penn in the Times argued that the only way for Democrats to win in the future was to move “back to the center,” which usually served as code for selling out reproductive rights and immigrants. But many of those same elite commentators, who profess to care deeply about working-class West Virginians, were notably silent about the (mostly women) teachers standing up to demand what they really want: improvements in their material conditions.In West Virginia, teachers with a college degree make a starting salary of about $30,000. Teachers with a PhD can make as little as $40,000. Want them to vote for Democrats? Maybe they’d vote for Democrats who want to change the fact that teachers are living paycheck to paycheck despite their extensive educations (which they may have gone deep into debt for). Clearly, politically active West Virginia teachers are willing to be militant; they want to throw their weight behind pro-labor Democrats, not wobbly centrists voting to fast-track the next financial crisis.
  5. Solidarity is our strongest asset.  Employers hate solidarity. Those in power rely on their ability to atomize people and particularize problems as individual and not systemic issues, because they are scared by what collective and unified demands can achieve. Because West Virginian school workers in every county united behind the strike, they came to the bargaining table with the upper hand, and had the security of knowing that not a single link in the chain had been broken. As Emily Comer and Jay O’Neal, two teachers who participated in the strike, remind us: people will push the other differences aside in the name of solidarity. And when they do, the results are powerful, moving and effective: and can give us great gains in the name of the marginalized.
  6. This is just the beginning. It looks like West Virginia teachers have lit a fire. Oklahoma teachers just announced that “schools will shut down” if the legislature doesn’t approve a pay raise for teachers by late April. They have good reasons to be mad — in OK, the average high school teacher makes $42,460. Many make far less, leaving the teachers educating Oklahoma’s kids struggling to provide for their own. Arizona teachers are considering the same — today, AZ teachers wore red to test the waters for a West Virginia-style action. As the Facebook event organizing this week’s #RedForEd action explained, “West Virginia is showing the entire nation what can happen when teachers stand in solidarity.”

 Image credit NBC.

Sejal Singh is a columnist at Feministing, where she writes about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice. Sejal is a Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national campaign to end gender-based violence in schools, where she has led several state and federal campaigns for student survivors' civil rights. In the past, Sejal led LGBT rights campaigns for the Center for American Progress. Today, she is a student at Harvard Law School and a frequent speaker on LGBTQ rights and civil rights in schools.

Sejal Singh is a law student and columnist at Feministing, writing about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice.

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