Do All Organizing Roads Lead to Bernie?

A Response to Eric Blanc’s Interview on Dead Pundit Society From a West Virginia Teacher and Strike Leader

By Michael Mochaidean

On a recent interview with the Dead Pundit Society podcast, episode “Teachers Strike Wave 2019:  Denver Edition w/ Eric Blanc” writer and journalist Eric Blanc argued that the recent wave of education strikes are directly related to the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, and through this, DSA as a whole. In the interview Blanc reflects back on the February 2018 West Virginia teacher strike that have since sparked a wave of teacher strikes over similar issues.

In the interview Blanc broadly connects the strikes to the Bernie Sanders campaign and draws a very direct connection to the West Virginia strike:

“… if you look at the Bernie Sander campaign and the support that it got in places like West Virginia or Arizona, where [Sanders] won handily, there was clearly an indication that significant sectors of working people, and young people, were looking for a different type of politics … for whatever seemed like a viable alternative to politics as usual. And so the Bernie Sander’s campaign … galvanized a lot of people and some of the most important people that it galvanized were in fact the small group of socialists that launched and initiated the West Virginia strike. The core group of organizers that for months built up to the West Virginia strike first got involved organizing with each other through the DSA and that DSA was born basically out of the Bernie Sander campaign.” [1]

Blanc’s assessment of this relationship between the Sanders campaign, DSA, and the teacher strikes is his connection between the small group of socialists in the Kanawha Valley DSA, particularly one of the strike leaders, Emily Comer, and their political bridge-building between Bernie’s campaign and DSA politics.

Assumptions on the Strike

Blanc assumes a number of things about the 2016 Sanders campaign in West Virginia. For one, during the Democratic primary West Virginia’s 55 counties went to Bernie, with Bernie receiving 51% of the vote to Hillary’s 36%. Trump would later go on to win all fifty-five counties, but this time at a rate of 68% to Hillary’s 26%. Rather than viewing Sanders’ success in the primary as indicative of a revolt against establishment figures such as Clinton, Blanc argues that this campaign reached the economic best interests of the white working class – but the numbers certainly complicate that narrative.

More critical to the narrative of the West Virginia strike is that Blanc attempts to draw a direct line between two teacher organizers, Jay O’Neal and Emily Comer. Both Jay and Emily are indeed DSA members and were politicized in many ways from the Sanders campaign, but what this narrative leaves aside is the countless others who were politically active but were not members of DSA or participants in the Sanders campaign.

Narrowing the Narrative

Nicole McCormick, an active union organizer and co-founder of the Facebook page where most of the initial West Virginia organizing took place, is not a member of DSA, nor are Erica Newsome, April Estep, or Alec Hunt – all moderators and original members of the page. What did make the West Virginia strike successful was less about ties to the DSA and Sanders and more about the necessity for an online platform to unite disparate and disenchanted union members across the state, many of whom were angry at the 2016 election results and West Virginia Governor Jim Justice switching parties from Democrat to Republican. To write the story and draw connection of the West Virginia teacher strike from the standpoint of simply one or two organizers paints a narrow portrait of the struggle and weaves a misleading picture that is more favorable to a future Sanders’ campaign, which Blanc supports. [2]

Blanc also explains the 2018 walkouts in a way that covers up much of the organizing that took place in other states which were not tied in any way to the 2016 Sanders campaign or DSA.

Take Katie Hancock for example, a Kentucky social worker and founder of the secret online Facebook page ‘United We Stand.’ Hancock initially created the page in the summer of 2017 after becoming irate at Governor Bevin’s attempts to privatize and overhaul the state’s pension program. Not wanting to be as openly political as others, Hancock chose to create a page that would go on to connect thousands of social workers across the state to fight this reactionary piece of legislation. This was the precursor to the organizing tool – KY 120 United – that was started by Hancock’s comrade, Nema Brewer. Neither Nema Brewer nor Katie Hancock are members of DSA, nor is it clear that either of their organizing goals were influenced by the 2016 Sanders campaign.

This is the case, too, with Rebecca Garelli, an organizer with the Arizona Educators United Facebook group that inspired a statewide strike there. Garelli was a teacher in Chicago during their famous 2012 strike. In many ways, the Chicago Teacher Strike (2012) was the culmination of various strands of organizing – Occupy, social justice unionism, anti-privatization – that were occurring at the time. Yet, their success was not tied to any one socialist organization or political candidate, but a decentralized and politicized base of militant activists. Garrelli took this experience with her to Arizona, where the story of struggle against the dual forces of racism and privatization stood with her as this strike progressed.

What’s at Stake?

What appears to be more at stake here is laying the groundwork for Sanders’ current presidential run. By tying the recent upsurge in militant unionism to Sanders, it will be easier for those who advocate within the left for backing the Sanders campaign in the Democratic Party primary – and a critical junction for this is the current debate within the DSA to throw its weight behind Sanders early on.

After all, if history remembers these strikes as the result of Bernie’s unsuccessful yet inspiring run, then his current run should be backed whole heartedly by the left as promoting future waves of strikes and class struggle. This historical revisionism is dangerous in that it both obfuscates the reality of these struggles and is, in many ways, a move to isolate Bernie from meaningful left criticism.

Michael Mochaidean is an organizer and member the West Virginia IWW and WVEA. He is currently co-authoring a book detailing the 2018 education walkouts, their triumphs and limitations one year later.

For further reading on teachers struggles and left electoralism we recommend “Strike To Win: How the West Virginia Teacher Strike Was Won” and “The Lure of Elections: From Political Power to Popular Power.”


[1] The respective quotes can be found approximately between 17:00 – 18:00 in the recording.

[2] See Eric Blanc, “Socialists, Democrats and the Dirty Break Socialist Worker, August 6, 2018 and for a more detailed discussion see Blanc’s piece “Red State Strikes and Electoral Politics” in Socialist Strategy and Electoral Politics, A Report, Verso Books, 2019. Here he makes the claim: “Broadly speaking, the victorious work stoppages in early 2018 demonstrate that class struggle at the ballot box and at the workplace can be mutually reinforcing components of a resurgent working-class movement. Both the Bernie Sanders campaign of 2016- which inspired and cohered many of West Virginia and Arizona’s key rank-and-file leaders- and the 2018 teacher walkouts posed a power alternative to the union officialdom traditional reliance on electing and lobbying mainstream Democrats.”