Strike To Win: How the West Virginia Teacher Strike Was Won

West Virginia teachers behind banner with "55 United"

The following is a transcribed talk by a West Virginia teacher who was one of several speakers at the Red & Black Party sponsored by the Labor Sector of Black Rose/Rosa Negra and which was held on April 7th at the 2018 Labor Notes Conference in Chicago.

Hi everyone, I’m Michael in Monongalia County, that’s a mouthful so I’m just going to call it “Mon” county. Mon county is the center where WVU is [West Virginia University]. I’m going to tell you about my story.

Last summer I was a delegate for my primary union WVEA [West Virginia Educators Association]. They supported Jim Justice, the wealthiest man in West Virginia for governor as a Democrat. A few months later he switched to the Republican Party and the union said ‘Jesus, Lord mercy, what are we going to do now?’ Wll it was on them.

So then I wrote an article, didn’t think it going to go anywhere, thought I was just going to vent.  It was about why I think we need rank and file, leftist militancy similar to what West Virginia had in 1990. In that year 47 of the 55 counties went on strike and these were actual picket lines where people had to physically stop scabs from going into schools. Luckily we didn’t have that this time. But I wrote this article thinking I’m just going to vent my frustrations but then a month later a comrade send me a text and goes “Hey, we need to talk about your article. I didn’t know there other socialists like myself here thinking about this.” So we started talking, realized he was upset too. What do we do? We set up a facebook group.

The Beginnings

So we formed this little facebook group of just small collection of us who just pissed off and we don’t know what else to do. So we just start adding members. Lo and behold we find all had a common theme that is we’re all pissed at our union establishment, we’re all pissed at our legislature and we feel like there’s nothing we can do so we’re going to come here and vent. Over time we start recruiting more and more members and we start planning that we’re going to go [to the state legislature] on Martin Luther King Jr Day because teachers are off. We were going to go there and go as a giant collective to get to the steps of the capital to demand that they fix our health insurance, they do not privatize public education, that they don’t get rid of seniority for teachers, and that they increase our pay. [Applause]

Then as we plan this, right before Thanksgiving, right before Christmas, we get found out – someone added someone on the executive board [of the union] and they find us. This is where I thought this is gonna be over, they are gonna try and transform it, the union is going to take over and is going to start deciding how we’re going to do it. But they realize there is too much rank and file militancy out there that they cannot stop at this point. Then after Martin Luther King Jr Day we all start coming back and we all start saying ‘Look, the legislature is not listening to us, they told us that they were going to privatize education, they were going to start giving out vouchers, they were going to cut corporate property tax, they were going to basically do what your seeing in every single state that’s trying to privatize education was going to come to our doorstep in West Virginia.’

A packed house at the Red & Back Party hosted by Black Rose/Rosa Negra at the 2018 Labor Notes Conference.
A packed house at the Red & Back Party hosted by Black Rose/Rosa Negra at the 2018 Labor Notes Conference.

The Strike

We took this information back to our teachers, we took it back to our communities and we said ‘We can’t let this happen, this our moment in history where we have to stop it.’ So what we did was, and this was tactical, we used the function of our main union [West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association (WVSSPA)] for the service personnel, and we used those unions as vehicles to push for the things we wanted. So we used their strategy, we used what they had to get what we wanted. But when they came out and said we agree with Governor Justice, we agree with what he wants and we’re going to take this rotten deal and we all said “No!,” …. “Hell no!” actually! And we all had enough community support built up during the strike, before the strike, that said, “we’re going to support you.”

This is when it turned into a wildcat strike. As soon as it became a wildcat strike, all bets were off. Union leaders started realizing they can’t reckon with anyone except the rank and file members. The legislature realized they cannot get any deal done without rank and file member support. And so we now had them both by the balls and it was awesome. Eventually the strike continues for nine days, it was the longest state-wide strike [for teachers] in West Virginia history, longer than the 1990 strike by one day.

And what I learned during this strike was this: I went on the It’s Going Down podcast to talk about what’s going on in West Virginia and I just happened to mention that I was with the IWW and it was sort of like a throw away – this is my tradition, this is where I needed to organize with, but [it didn’t seem to matter much]. Suddenly the Southern Coordinating Committee [of the IWW] sends me a message and says “What can we do to help?” and from there the rest is history. They started giving me information, they started helping me distribute pamphlets and they start to help me distribute them throughout the state. We focused on working class solidarity and tried to make sure every single person in that state realizes that we’re not we’re not here for Democrats, we’re not here for Republicans, we’re here to help organize the working class, and that resonates with people.

Struggles in Conservative States

The few things I want to take away from this struggle are is that in conservative and reactionary states like West Virginia you can win serious victories there because those are the states that have austerity, the states that have been hit hardest by the recession after 2008. These are the states that have not transitioned from an industrial to a post-industrial economy and these are the states where we can win. These are the states that have a strong working class history of militancy and you can build off of that. The whole reason why we wore these [red bandana worn around neck] is to commemorate Blair Mountain where miners were literally killed by the state.

So we drew on that tradition, we drew on the fact that we weren’t relying on politicians. And what we found were these little autonomous groups slowly forming up – each school had their own secret group, each county had their own secret group and every single person was coordinating in a truly democratic fashion where there’s no top-down hierarchical approach. If someone said, “We need to flood the capitol,” it slowly percolated and if there was enough support we could get everyone there all at once because there was enough direct action [oriented militancy], enough support from the people.

Drawing from Bases of Support

And so for me what I think I can do going forward as an anarchist, what the anarchist movement can continue doing, is finding ways to draw upon those community support networks, the things you’ve already been doing and use those for future struggles. We had to rely on churches and nonprofits to help feed the students. All I did was act as the point person so they could bring me food and then I would help pack it up and send it to the county. Using those networks we realized that we had enough support there from the community at-large. We set up a strike fund both with the IWW and the primary unions [AFT and WVEA]. The primary union one had almost $300,000 by the end of it. We didn’t have to use that money but what we saw was there’s a new struggle a way to fight Janus, a way to win these victories that doesn’t have to rely on traditional business unionism and it can combine our political ideology, our theory, with real action and I think West Virginia is the beating heart of where this new struggle is going to continue and now we’re seeing it happen in Oklahoma, we’re seeing it happen in Kentucky, we’re gonna see it happen in Arizona. [Applause]

Participants at the Red & Black Party also raised several hundred dollars towards the Burgerville fast food workers campaign and you can read more on their struggle here