Solidarity Across West Virginia

What were conditions like for West Virginia teachers leading up to the strike?

Salaries for teaching in West Virginia are not great. I’ve taught in other states, and I was kind of shocked to get here and see how low the salaries really were — I think we’re like 48th or 49th in the nation. Also, teachers are used to a salary scale with steps, and every year you get a little bit more money. Here, the steps don’t even keep up with inflation.

The thing that really started it though was the health insurance situation here. We’re covered through something called the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA), which used to be a great system, because it’s a state entity. It’s not entirely shielded from profit, because they do outsource some functions to companies. But it doesn’t have many of the same problems as private health insurance, and it used to offer great benefits for teachers.

But over time, it’s just slowly eroded. And every fall for at least the past three years deductibles have been going up, premiums have been going up, maximum out-of-pocket would go up, fewer things would be covered, drugs cost more. It was kind of like death by a thousand cuts.

So when you combine healthcare costs going up with the fact that our salaries were staying low and weren’t keeping up with inflation, a lot of us were getting frustrated.

And then, this year, they made some really bad changes. They decided they were going to start taking whole family income into account, which for me was going to make it so I would pay hundreds of dollars more per month.

And finally they attempted to implement a program called Go365. It was like a wellness plan, but instead of rewarding people for taking advantage of healthy options it actually worked on a penalty model. So if you didn’t hit the levels for, say, a certain amount of physical activity, they actually penalized you by raising your deductible. They said you could meet these standards by getting a Fitbit, joining a gym, or submitting a lot of really personal health information, but a lot of people just got fed up.

When did people start talking about striking?

All of that combined was causing tensions to grow. But what really changed everything was people realizing that others felt the same way. The mood changed from griping in the teachers’ lounge to seriously talking about doing something.

I had created a Facebook group in the fall. I called it West Virginia Teachers United. I did that because I was frustrated with the fact that we had too many teachers’ unions in West Virginia, and they spent most of their time trying to out-recruit the other ones rather than working on the real issues. So I was just trying to get people together in one place.

But when we saw how frustrated people were with changes to PEIA, my friend Emily and I decided to open it up to all public employees, and we pushed it and tried to organize through the Facebook group. We had a goal to get a thousand people in it by New Year’s. And we reached that and we thought, oh, a thousand, amazing. But we had no idea.

We would sign people up at the town hall, the PEIA hearing. We were trying to get people who were already frustrated enough to come out to these things, activist types. But the group really grew. And in January, one lady in the group said, something like, “So when are we gonna talk about going on strike?”

And within hours, a friend called me and was like, “Have you looked at the Facebook group?” Whereas before any post had like five responses max, this had thirty, then forty, then fifty responses. It was just clear that people were at that level.

One thing about West Virginia is there had actually been a teachers’ strike in 1990 that was almost statewide, and was pretty successful. It was 28 years ago, but people remembered that, whether they had been students or beginning teachers. Plus we have a rich labor heritage here, so people know what the word “strike” means. When someone was finally brave enough to say it out loud, people were ready.

So how did that transform into an actual strike?

The momentum was building. A few of us took a banner to the state house that said “Public Employee Healthcare, Not Corporate Welfare,” made sure all the senators and delegates walked right by it and saw it. We posted the video of that and it got people stirred up.

One of our teachers’ unions, WVEA, had a rally on Martin Luther King Day at the Capitol, and there were a couple hundred people there. The people who went saw how little the politicians cared. There was a lot of lip service but no action, and it just made people angrier.

The Facebook group was growing like crazy. By the end of January it had over 20,000 members. After we started talking about striking we made it a secret group, but we had to approve every single new member. So at a certain point Emily and I were like, “Oh my god, we have to get more people moderating the group.” So we appointed some people who we thought were really reasonable, and tried to split them between the unions.

People started making their own videos about how bad Go365 was and sharing them on Facebook. Everyone was getting more and more fired up, and then at some point at the end of the month, people in the southern counties, Mingo and Wyoming counties in the coalfield region, they called meetings with their unions down there and were basically like, “Hey, we’re fed up. This is ridiculous. We’re not gonna do this anymore.” From what I heard, some older teachers at that meeting stood up and said, “You know what, you’re just gonna have to go on strike.”

I think collectively a lot of us were feeling that way, because for years we’ve tried the whole email, call, visit your legislator thing. Finally the southern counties had enough and they called it Fed Up Friday, and on February 2nd four of the southern counties said, “We’re not coming to school.”

One key thing they had was service personnel on board, which is actually a separate union here. The bus drivers, cooks, and other people were all on board. And when you live in a really rural state, you can’t have school without them. The teachers basically said, “The buses aren’t running, the teachers aren’t coming. You do what you want, but we won’t be there on Friday.” And they had a high enough threshold that the superintendents felt like they had to close school.

When word got out about it, our governor came down and tried to call a special meeting. He asked for the most “level-headed” teachers at each school, he tried to coax them into not walking out. It didn’t work. It just made people madder.

So did it catch like wildfire from the southern counties?

Definitely. When they walked out on February 2nd, people in my county were watching the videos posted to the Facebook group during our lunch breaks and our planning period, and we were all like, “Oh, my god, this is awesome.” At that point, the genie was out of the bottle, and it was not going to be contained.

While that was happening we started doing walk-ins across the state, and other informational pickets. We did them in front of university basketball games, in front of the shopping mall, just to spread the word and get more people involved. It was also a good way to test where teachers are at, and we noticed that they did walk-ins at almost all the schools statewide.

Recognizing how amplified things had gotten, the unions started working together, which was beautiful. We knew there was no way it was gonna work unless they did. So they called for a big rally to see how many people would show up, and 10,000 people came and stood out in the cold rain. So we applied some more pressure and eventually the union said, “Okay, we’re calling a statewide walkout.”

So you all went on strike, and then what happened?

NBC News was broadcasting live from the capitol, and we were all there out on the steps. So we all got alerts on our phone, seeing the results of the negotiation before the union leaders even came out. The result was a 5% raise for all teachers and service personnel, a 3% raise for all other state employees, a promise to get rid of some of the bad bills that were circulating in the membership at that time — some charter school stuff, some attacks on teacher seniority. And they said they would establish a task force to fix PEIA.

Because people saw that on their phones first, we had a moment to chew on it. The three union leaders got done meeting with the governor, came out and announced the deal, and people were not having it. People were fed up because PEIA is the biggest issue, it’s why we went out, and a task force? We all know what a task force means. That means you’re not actually gonna fix it. Plus why would we trust the legislature? They’ve never given us a reason to trust them. We wanna see a fix in writing.

So people were frustrated, and they were booing the union leadership. I heard people say, “We are the union bosses!” and “Get back to the table!”

Originally the deal was that we would have a cooling-off day on Wednesday and we’d go back to work on Thursday. But people started posting a ton in the group online. The next morning I went up to the capitol and it was chaos there. It became immediately clear that while the governor and the House had agreed to this bill, the Senate hadn’t. So, we learned that the Senate maybe wasn’t even gonna go along with this.

So we called a meeting, and a church a few blocks away let us use their sanctuary. There were hundreds of people there. Teachers started standing up and saying to the union, “We want to take a vote about when we go back in. You didn’t ask us, you just told us. And that’s not how it’s gonna work.”

We broke up after the meeting, and basically told building reps to get ahold of everyone in their building, and we worked out this script that said something like, “We won’t return until all the parties have actually signed the legislation.” We were worried the schools would stay open and we’d have to go for real picket lines and try to prevent people from crossing them. That night we were all glued to our screens refreshing the page that we usually use for snow days, which shows whether schools would be closed or not.

And we watched it happen in real time — every single county called off school.

How long did you stay out?

We stayed out Thursday, Friday, Monday and Tuesday. And we finally got it signed. We ended up coming out of it with 5% for everyone, not just school employees but all state employees. We’re still working on PEIA.

How much do you think national politics had an effect on the political consciousness and strike preparedness of teachers in West Virginia?

For me personally, and for other strike organizers, the election was a watershed moment. We thought, we’ve just gotta do something, because we can’t just sit by anymore. A lot of us Bernie Sanders supporters saw what happened with Clinton and ultimately with Trump, and we just snapped into action in one way or another. So I definitely think that was part of what happened here.

Bernie won the Democratic primary in every county in West Virginia, and then every county went for Trump, and then every county went on strike. That tells you how much people are desperate for change. Luckily even though a lot of West Virginia voted for Trump, there is some left-wing leadership here among teachers. In my experience, people are a lot more left-leaning than the media or anyone really gives them credit for when they’re actually presented with the ideas of the left.

Many people are saying public sector unions across the country need to look to West Virginia for inspiration in a post-Janus world. What do you make of that?

I’m still not used to people saying that, but I do think there’s some truth to it. On the one hand, I would love to be in a collective bargaining state. I know how much better that is. But at the same time, the whole problem with unions for forever has just been business unionism that’s obsessed with making friends in high places, people with authority, and keeping them happy.

And at the same time the unions have been set up so that members think “I’m in a union, what does the union give me?” rather than “I am the union.” Some of that is the fault of leadership not encouraging rank-and-file or bottom-up action. But in a “right-to-work” state, for all its drawbacks, a union really has to fight and show members what it means to be in a union. It can’t be business as usual anymore.

Do you have any advice for DSA members in their own workplaces?

Having an identity as a worker is very important. For me, before the strike I never knew the bus drivers at my school, but through struggle I not only learned who they were, but started to think of myself in the same category as them.

We’re all workers and we’re all getting screwed. It doesn’t matter if you work behind a desk, you’re still a worker and you’re up against many of the same things other workers are facing under capitalism. I know it seems weird to think of yourself as a worker, because we’re not used to that in our society, but compare yourself to the one percent, and you realize there are many ways in which we’re all in this together. And we have to stand up and fight back together.

Another thing: labor unions have taken a beating in this country, and most of them are not very radical anymore. But I think we need to resist the temptation to think there’s no reason to join one. Unions need to be at the forefront of the fight for a better society, and DSA members need to see themselves as potential union members who can make unions better. We have to work to transform unions into democratic fighting machines, focused outward on community issues and class issues, instead of just bread-and-butter services for their members.

Author’s note: For an update on organizing in West Virginia to fix PEIA, read this piece published on August 31st on the DSA Medicare for All blog.