West Virginia’s Political Strike Wins Big

Eric Blanc

Posted February 28, 2019

Yesterday was a very good day for educators and working people. Only a few hours after Bernie Sanders announced his presidential candidacy, striking West Virginia educators forced their Republican legislature to “indefinitely postpone” a reactionary omnibus bill legalizing education privatization. Though they will remain on strike through Wednesday to ensure that the Republicans do not attempt to revive the bill, the House vote was major victory for educators in West Virginia and across the nation.

Teachers pack the gallery above the West Virginia state legislature ahead of elected officials’ arrival on Tuesday.

(Photo by MeriBeth Underwood)

West Virginia has yet again taught working people across the country a critical political lesson: strikes work.

Events over the past twenty-four hours have moved at a lightning pace. On Monday afternoon, the Senate sent to the House a particularly vicious version of the Republicans’ omnibus bill. While cynically granting public employees a 5 percent raise, the legislation would have simultaneously legalized school privatization for the first time in West Virginia. Katie Endicott, a rank-and-file teacher from Mingo County, explains why educators were so invested in stopping the introduction of charter schools and vouchers into their state:

Our students are not for sale, West Virginia is not for sale. It’s infuriating that people would try to profit off us: privatization would give millions of dollars to elites and it would create even more haves and have not. We’ve seen the charter school system fail students all across the US and that’s why we risking our pay raise to defeat this bill. We want better funding, and better schools, for all students. All students are worthy.

The intransigence of the Republican Senate leadership forced the hands of top union leaders, who for weeks have been pushing back against the intensifying calls of their ranks — and many county unions — for a work stoppage to kill the bill. As late as last Thursday, AFT-West Virginia president Fred Albert was encouraging educators to accept the House version of the bill, which would have legalized charters in West Virginia, though with a more limited number initially: “It is by no means perfect or everything we wanted, but the political reality is we do not have a majority in either chamber to kill the bill.”

Rather than promote workplace action to create a new relationship of forces, Albert stressed that the absence of a Democratic legislative majority, and the lack of support from superintendents, “presents a completely different scenario than last year with serious legal and financial consequences for our members.” AFT national president Randi Weingarten similarly issued a letter encouraging her members in West Virginia to accept the House bill.

These attempts to avoid a strike by reaching a bipartisan “compromise” were blown up both from pressure from below — Mingo county voted last Friday to strike beginning this Tuesday — and the intransigence of Senate Republican leader Mitch Carmichael. To their credit, the heads of the three educators’ unions swiftly announced on Monday evening that a statewide strike would begin the next day.

By early Tuesday morning, it had become clear that the Republicans had vastly underestimated the resolve and militancy of West Virginia educators. Katie Endicott explains why the state was able to get strike ready virtually overnight:

Legislators thought that “55 Strong” ended last March. But last year’s strike, and the strikes across the country like Los Angeles, taught us just how much power we have. It feels like last year was a practice round. …. And since last March, the rank-and-file leaders in West Virginia have continued to carry the torch, and we’ve become more mobilized and organized and connected than ever before. So “55 Strong” is not just a strike — it’s a movement. We were more confident in ourselves this time and that’s why we were able to flip the switch so quickly.

Though many superintendents had for weeks threatened to keep schools open, the overwhelming majority quickly caved in the face of the walkout announcement. Only in Putnam county did district leaders attempt to open schools Tuesday morning. With the help of hundreds of educators from neighboring counties, real picket lines went up beginning at 5am. Like last year, bus drivers played a critical role by refusing to work. Ultimately, only a handful of students, and even smaller number of teachers, crossed the picket lines. “To see that outpouring of love and solidarity was extremely inspiring,” notes Endicott.

The scene at the state capitol in Charleston was electric. Hours before the House session began, the gallery was already full and thousands of educators were crammed into the rotunda singing, chanting, and stomping.

The power and breadth of the strike — and the ability of educators Tuesday morning to paralyze Putnam — forced a size-able layer of House Republicans on Tuesday morning to reverse their previously made commitment to supporting Carmichael’s final bill. Indeed, the Senate leader Tuesday afternoon lamented to the Charleston Gazette that his House colleagues had jumped ship at the last minute: “We had an agreement, they had committed to 52 votes … What I’ll say is one’s word is all you have in this building. You need to honor your word.” Like events one year ago, Carmichael’s reactionary agenda was defeated by the power of mass workplace action.

It remains to be seen whether the Republicans will attempt within the next day to convince some of these legislators to reverse course and vote to “resurrect” the bill. Union leaders on Tuesday night announced that they will stay out stay out on strike Wednesday to ensure that the bill is dead.

But, for now, educators are justified in celebrating in their remarkable victory. Endicott describes the scene inside the capitol rotunda when it was announced that the bill had been voted down: “It was even more intense than last year. Honestly, that was the loudest I’ve every heard the capitol — and we’ve already been through a lot in there. Educators from their early twenties to their late sixties were literally jumping up and down, hugging and crying. It was amazing.”

And Endicott was quick to note the significance of the fact that teachers and support staff were celebrating a victory that could potentially cost them their promised pay raise. “It was not lost on us that this was a real sacrifice,” she explains. “But our slogan this year is ‘Our students first’ — and we really meant it. What I always ask my co-workers is to remember their responsibility: ‘How do you want history to remember us?’”

Of course, the struggle is far from over. Republicans may again attempt to push through a more watered-down version of the privatization bill. From below, rank-and-file educators are clear that they want a clean bill that grants public employees their pay raise without tying this to charters or ESAs. And there’s growing talk about turning this defensive strike into a offensive struggle to win better schools for West Virginian students and a real fix for the PEIA health insurance program — the pending demand from last year’s strike that has yet to be resolved.

No matter what happens over the coming days and weeks, West Virginian educators have again made history. What could have been a major blow for the nationwide teachers’ upsurge has, in less than twenty-four hours, become a resounding victory and a spur for further working-class militancy. With Oakland teachers going out this Thursday, and a strike now looming in Sacramento, there’s no sign that this revolt is going away any time soon. And that’s a very good thing: for the “political revolution” promoted by Bernie Sanders to come to life in this country, we’ll need many more workplace actions like yesterday’s inspiring victory in West Virginia.

This article was originally published in Jacobin on February 19, 2019

Eric Blanc writes on labor movements past and present. Formerly a high school teacher in the Bay Area, he is the author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics.