From Wildcat to Union Reform: The West Virginia Teacher Struggle Continues

By Michael Mochaidean

In the aftermath of the 2018 wildcat teachers strike in West Virginia that kicked off the #Red4Ed movement networks of militant teachers formed the rank-and-file caucus known as West Virginia United and for the past five months the group has been working to challenge the incumbent leadership of the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) in the first competitive election for the union’s top leadership positions in twelve years. And while the caucus lost the elections, the effort leaves many lessons to be learned for those pursuing the “rank-and-file strategy.”

Prior to the Campaign

WVEA’s elections occur every year at the annual Delegate Assembly. Most NEA (National Education Association) state affiliates have a similar election process – presidential elections occur every few years, while executive committee member positions are up each cycle. In West Virginia, presidential and executive committee terms are three years, with between 3-4 seats available at every Delegate Assembly. WVEA uses a delegated system for voting, so only those individuals who have been elected to serve as a delegate can vote at the annual assembly. This process limits the possibility of reaching all union members and, in the past, has meant that only the most active and loyal supporters of the old guard are in attendance.

This has changed in recent years as more progressive and left-leaning members were elected to serve as delegates. However, it was never enough to put unified energy towards a slate of candidates for leadership. The cycle continued unabated, then, as candidates for the executive committee went up to the podium without facing an opponent.

It’s worth noting the ideological diversity within WVU: as with most other politically diverse groups some of us had to learn lessons that others had already worked out. This became particularly clear in our relation to the internal union election and, as discussed below, the governor’s race. West Virginia United decided early on to run a slate of candidates that could muster their collective power into a force for change. First, every member had the opportunity to run in a candidate primary for the three main positions – president, vice president, and three executive committee seats. Since grassroots democracy is an integral part of the caucus, we felt it would have been wrong to put forth candidates that were not decided upon by our caucus membership. This was the first step in ensuring that whatever transformation we wanted to see take place in our unions started with us. 

The Campaign Kicks Off

The nature of WVEA’s elections made it hard to contact every dues-paying member in the state, so we relied heavily on the structures we had built in the lead-up to the 2018 walkouts. On our Public Employees UNITED Facebook page, we readily have an audience of over 20,000 education workers. Building a contact list from the strike was easy enough – these individuals were already active preparing for the strike and had continued doing the work of the union afterwards. Moreso, many of these individuals had agitated for a wildcat strike in their school districts, so their loyalties to the way “things have always been done” wasn’t much of a concern.

Our first task was to go through each district, find out how many delegates they could send based on their school district’s membership rate, and build a contact list. Just like we’re taught to do with building workplace power, we had to input over a hundred names with appropriate contact information, as well as their scale of support for the caucus’ ideas. This was no small feat. For some districts, we had almost no one we knew there, but the benefit of living in a small state where everyone knows everyone is that we could rely on others to put us in contact with a member. In particular, rural counties were hardest because so few teachers are in those districts. Having established networks with nearby educators who either previously taught in or knew others who currently taught in those counties was particularly helpful in getting leads.

Once the contact list was finished, our slate of candidates worked to hold one-on-one phone calls with as many delegates as we could. We knew in advance which individuals to avoid – mostly those already serving on the executive committee – but we also knew that you’ll never truly know someone’s politics unless you take the effort to meet with them. A good organizer never leaves anyone out. This process took the better part of two months to complete, but by February, we had begun making calls and had a clear eye on where we were headed for our caucus elections.

By happenstance, a young progressive candidate for West Virginia Governor was also running for election simultaneous to our caucus run. Stephen Smith, who had cut his teeth working as a community organizer with Saul Alinsky’s successor in Chicago, was making a bid for Governor on framed around progressive policies. Smith was a close ally of the caucus, though we never endorsed him. During the 2018 walkouts, he helped organize a fund for striking educators that raised over $300,000. His education platform was written by teachers and his slogan, “One thousand leaders, not one,” matched the spirit of the “Not me, us” era.

In a strange parallel to our movement, the overlap between the WVEA election and Smith’s bid were bound together. Many of our caucus members appeared on Smith’s daily videos where he would chat with everyday West Virginians about their concerns, and most members were also volunteers on his campaign in one way or another. As we did our union outreach across all areas of the state, Smith traveled extensively as well, crisscrossing each of the fifty-five counties to gain insight into what West Virginians wanted to see out of their government. It was straight out of an organizer’s handbook; meet people one-on-one, find out their concerns, come up with strategies to assist, then mobilize them to take action.

Our caucus had been doing something similar. We knew who was a Smith supporter and who wasn’t. His potential voters could also be our potential voters because, we believed, they also saw an inherent flaw in establishment politics. When we had conversations with delegates, we likewise tried to find out what they wanted to see in their unions, we discussed ways we could implement them locally and statewide, and we finished with a mobilizing “ask.” Often, it was to find out other delegates in their county, but it could also be bolder; it always depended on the context where the worker was.

These tactics for both campaigns were in stark contrast to the establishment candidates running against both Smith and the caucus. Ben Salango is the county commissioner for the state’s largest district – Kanawha County – and the capital of the state. He had been in Democratic Party politics for many years and has donated heavily to the party. This in turn gave him a base of support with union leaders who returned the favor. The state’s AFL-CIO endorsed Salango as did the state’s Teamsters local. Only two unions – WVEA and AFT-WV – did not endorse Salango, but many at the top supported his run nevertheless. This provided Salango with a steady funding supply and pulpit to reach union members.

Likewise, delegate lists were already known to the established leadership. Tasks that took us months to accomplish were readily available to those running for re-election. Contact information and connections with delegates were already in place for those candidates, whereas the movement-building nature of our campaign was something we slogged through week after week. It was an uneven playing field, but we, like Smith, believed we could eek out a victory.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Everything about our campaign had to be shifted to remote organizing. On top of trying to cope with the reality that we were now full-time, virtual educators, unsure if or when we would be called back into our classrooms, we had to manage an unprecedented campaign for union office. Our candidate for president, Jay O’Neal, had scheduled tours to meet with locals that had to be scrapped in favor of weekly video chats. Likewise for Smith, whose campaign centered around traveling across the state six days a week, the new reality meant that the connections he had built with individuals prior to COVID-19 were now more important than ever. Video discussions became an important way to connect with potential voters and push his platform. The caucus, too, held weekly video calls with policy experts, anti-poverty organizers, and educator-organizers to show that our election was more than running a union, it was about the fundamentals of organizing.

We wanted others to see through this process that they were the union, that they didn’t have to rely on the way things had always been done to make unions more transparent and more accountable. We worked to build bridges with other labor organizations to also show that the work of our one union was not as powerful without working in coalition with others. Our understanding truly was “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Everything we had done was classic organizing 101. We didn’t leave any room for doubt, continued to cycle through our lists and make follow-up calls, and by the time the Delegate Assembly came around, we knew we had conversations with over ninety percent of delegates and where they stood. We went into the election feeling confident, believing that our hard work would pay off.

The COVID-19 outbreak was the proverbial wrench in our otherwise flawless plan. Physical meetings were shut down in West Virginia soon after our state of emergency in mid-March. The Delegate Assembly had to be moved back a month to an online meeting that would only discuss two things – the union election and a term limit amendment. One bonus of physical meetings is that they allow you to interact more with those who can cast a vote in your favor. Phone calls for one-on-ones are great, but they lack the personal touch of physical interactions. Drumming up last minute votes and securing votes from those on the fence is critical. This was impossible to accomplish, so we relied instead on impassioned speeches about the necessity for changing our union internally. None of the establishment candidates held one-on-one meetings with voters, nor did they have the same level of organizational commitment to digital organizing that we did. The most we ever saw before the election was a postcard that read “Steady Leadership in Unsteady Times” with pictures of their candidate slate on it. We believed that everything we had done prior to the assembly, coupled with how we had out-organized them for the past several months, would be what saved us.

After a grueling and confusing Delegate Assembly, we had two weeks before votes would be tallied. Members received their ballots in the mail and in the interim, we sent out mailers to as many delegates as we could, reminding them of our slogan, “Bold leadership takes courage.” blazened with images of the 2018 walkout.

It should’ve been clear to us that we would lose when we saw the election results roll in for the Governor’s race. Despite his best efforts, Smith lost the primary race to Salango by ten thousand votes. Many voting centers had been closed or changed on election day due to a lack of poll workers. Fearful of spreading COVID, many voters stayed home and the election was a dismal display for those hopeful that an election could shift the balance of power.

Our caucus members feared what would come next. Sure enough, our candidates put forth a strong showing, winning more than forty percent of delegate votes, but it wasn’t enough to put us over the top. None of our candidates won office, and we were left with a sinking feeling in the pit of our stomach that we would be in a weaker position to tackle the COVID-19 crisis in our schools.

Final Thoughts

Doing everything right doesn’t always translate to the success you’re hoping for. Being the best prepared and most active person in the room doesn’t mean that others will follow you. And even after impressive labor actions, not everyone will see in it the same things you did.

At every step of the way, West Virginia United did their best to put into practice the skills they had honed over two years of striking, organizing, and pushing from below. The unified energy towards electing candidates to union office was one way to transform the WVEA into something that mirrored the ideas of the caucus – one that focused on building local power, not relying on local leadership; one that took direct action, not lobbying politicians; one that was transparent to the membership, not zealously guarding the inner workings of the union.

Not every delegate saw it that way. Despite the massive wildcat strike that had taken place not two years prior, many who could cast their votes wanted a return to the same. Some delegates told us that they cast their votes for some of our slate members, but not all, fearful that a sweep by a radical slate would upend the entire union during a time of crisis. Others agreed with the caucus’ principles, but weren’t certain that our slate had the necessary skills to protect members in the worst case scenario.

We lost, but we learned a valuable lesson: elections can be referendums, but your movement can’t hinge on a single day of voting. In the aftermath of our defeat, West Virginia United has held several well-attended discussion forums with parents and educators about returning to school in the Fall. We’ve compiled a list of concerns teachers and service personnel have about COVID-19 and are now helping locals take up the fight with their district boards of education. As COVID-19 continues to spread across the country, there are even talks by some rank-and-file education caucuses of strikes to keep schools physically shut down to protect staff. We’re doing the work we would have done within leadership, but now without the pay.

Our struggle continues, and as COVID-19 continues to strain what our leadership is capable of doing, and what our elected leaders are willing to do, more West Virginia educators are looking to us for leadership. In this moment, we’re experiencing what it looks like when a dual-power institution takes the helm during a crisis and redirects the course of action.

Elections couldn’t save us; only good organizing will.

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 we recommend “Strike To Win: How the West Virginia Teacher Strike Was Won” and “Picket Line Lessons: The UTLA Teacher Strike.”