The teachers united couldn’t be defeated

March 7, 2018

Khury Petersen-Smith and Dana Blanchard report from West Virginia as teachers claimed a victory after a strike that galvanized supporters of labor everywhere.

"WE ARE worthy! We are worthy!"

Those words rang out and echoed around the West Virginia Capitol building as public school teachers and their supporters celebrated the passage of legislation that gives them and other state employees a 5 percent raise.

This was the culmination of a nine-day, statewide strike, during which teachers, their family members and many others mobilized for a struggle that reached into every corner of the state.

Day after day, the halls of the Capitol building were filled with union members--their numbers only grew as the strike went on. When lawmakers finally agreed to the raise, the huge crowd packed into the building erupted in deafening cheers, chants and singing.

The strike began on Thursday, February 22, with nearly 20,000 educators participating--a tremendous show of strength by labor in a "right to work" state. Public schools in all 55 counties of the West Virginia closed down--and stayed closed through Tuesday, March 6.

The slogan of "55 strong, 55 united" was put to the test several times over the course of the strike. West Virginia's political leaders tried to get teachers to accept a lower raise--and then to give lower raises to other state employees, in a blatant attempt to pit workers against one another.

Striking teachers and their supporters stand united in the West Virginia Capitol building
Striking teachers and their supporters stand united in the West Virginia Capitol building

The politicians complained that 5 percent raises would leave no revenue to meet the strikers' other major demand--for more funding for the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) to stop the cost of health care from being shifted onto state workers and their families.

There still is no fix for PEIA beyond Gov. Jim Justice's promise to convene a commission on the issue. What's more, after passing the legislation on Tuesday, some Republicans claimed that the additional money for state workers would be made up through cuts to other programs that working people rely on, including Medicaid--though, importantly, there is no language in the bill mandating this.

So the teachers' struggle isn't over. But this resounding victory on wages--forced out of politicians who were determined to say no on the basis of a militant strike and mass protest--is a dramatic step forward that will make future struggles more confident and powerful.

Christian, a teacher from Huntington, captured the spirit that inspired this struggle: "It's more than about pay. It's more than about health care. It's about something bigger. For me as a teacher, it's about setting an example for my kids and showing them that it's okay to stand up for what you believe in."

JIM JUSTICE was one of the politicians who learned just what the power of working class struggle can mean.

Early on in the strike, Justice issued the familiar sound bites about fiscal responsibility that are typical of politicians across the U.S.: Take less now and bigger raises might follow if the state's economic turnaround continues--though they never do.

By Wednesday of last week, Justice had come out publicly in support of the 5 percent raise, and this Tuesday afternoon, following the Senate's vote, he stood among the teachers, claiming a shared victory.

But Justice only supported 5 percent because the teachers and state workers refused to take anything less. The raise became a line in the sand, and Justice realized which side he needed to be on.

The hundreds of teachers packed into the Capitol on March 6 didn't let Justice forget that he hasn't been their ally. Earlier in the day, after the Senate Finance Committee agreed to a 5 percent raise, Justice told the crowd in the rotunda: "We're almost to the finish line, and we can get there together."

In response, a teacher yelled from the back: "We'll believe you when you put it in writing!"

Justice and other politicians will take credit at their press conferences, but everyone who was in the Capitol during this struggle will remember that rank-and-file teachers won the day.

In fact, teachers refused to leave the Capitol building on Tuesday until victory was certain.

As developments trickled out from behind the closed doors of the legislative chambers, the size of the crowd actually grew over the course of the day, and the chants became louder and more determined.

When someone first emerged from the Senate with news that all state employees would get the 5 percent raise, teachers chanted, "Words mean nothing, put it in writing!" Even after legislators produced a bill, the crowd chanted, "We won't leave until you sign"--meaning Justice had to add his signature.

Teachers only accepted the victory and celebrated when the final, signed bill was held aloft for all to see.

THE TERMS of the agreement are important. But there is a significance to this struggle that goes beyond the money.

The strike called attention to the social role that schools and teachers play in the communities of a state torn apart by energy corporations.

Amelia, who teaches high school in Parkersburg, talked about the weight of generational poverty in the lives of West Virginians. "Our job is to show our students there's a whole world out there," she said.

Since many students depend on meals at school to eat each day, teachers showed that their struggle was about more than themselves by organizing meals during the strike--and some students joined in. "The teachers, we make sure the kids are fed," Amelia said. "And yesterday, our girls track team set up food for the community."

Despite its proud history of labor struggle--especially militant coal miners' strikes--West Virginia is, perhaps more than any other state today, seen as "Trump Country." The state's workers are cast as one-dimensionally right wing and part of Trump's base.

Terri, a teacher in Charleston, disagrees. "We have a strong history of fighting," she said. "And even though the state, in the last election, went for Donald Trump, that doesn't necessarily mean that we're a right-wing state. At all."

In conclusion, she pointed to the crowd of chanting, striking teachers around us and said: "Obviously!"

The teachers were having an impact beyond the public sector--and beyond West Virginia altogether--in inspiring other workers to fight, even before they had won.

Communications Workers of America union members at Frontier Communications have also gone on strike in West Virginia.

Oklahoma teachers, inspired to step up their own fight in the last days of the West Virginia strike, announced on Tuesday that they would walk out if the state legislature doesn't raise pay and provide for more funding to education. They are considering a one-day work stoppage on April 5.

Arizona teachers are fighting back as well, with a statewide day of solidarity on Wednesday in which teachers will wear red shirts at work. As the Facebook page for the #RedForEd day of action says, "West Virginia is showing the entire nation what can happen when teachers stand in solidarity."

Arizona and Oklahoma are among the states that pay their teachers the worst.

THE FULL impact of the West Virginia teachers' victory will only be clear over time as other groups of workers and other movements take inspiration from their example.

As for themselves, West Virginia teachers will have to keep organizing and mobilizing to demand more funding for the state workers' health care system--and they need to unite with other workers to stop the politicians from slashing budgets for social programs. In a state where energy corporations continue to extract huge profits, the solution that teachers raised during the walkout is vital: Tax corporations and the rich.

Obviously, there are challenges ahead. But the teachers' victory won this week can be the basis for bolder struggles to come. And the fact that it was teachers' resolve and solidarity that won the day can set an example for the whole labor movement.

Taking off from the slogan "55 United," several teachers in the crowd on Tuesday had signs and shirts that read "55 ignited."

It's true: West Virginia's teachers have lit a fire. And there is plenty of fuel to burn.

Pranav Jani contributed to this article.

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