Activism

'A Redneck Revolution': Takeaways From the West Virginia Teacher Strike

Could the success of the strike turn the political tide in West Virginia, where Trump won by 69 percent?

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Edwina Howard-Jack

West Virginia teachers returned to the classroom last Thursday after a 13-day strike over low pay and poor health benefits. Governor Jim Justice agreed to a 5 percent pay increase, a critical fix for the state that ranks 48 out of 50 states in teacher compensation.

Teachers and organizers are split, however, over concern that the strike ended too soon, without a resolution over how to overhaul the Public Employees Insurance Agency, whose high premiums and limited coverage hurt not only teachers, but other school staff and retirees for whom PEIA is the only option for health coverage. Some wonder if they should still be on strike, while others believe that the resulting pay raise, the teacher’s resolve and the public support for the strike offer a playbook for Democrats hoping to turn West Virginia and other red states blue in November.

Edwina Howard-Jack, a 12th-grade Dual Credit and Speech teacher at Buckhannon-Upshur High School in Buckhannon, West Virginia, is among those who are not satisfied with Governor Jim Justice and the West Virginia legislature’s 5 percent pay increase, and a task force to study, but no legislative improvements for PEIA. "I am largely disappointed and feel it was a mistake for us to go back today without a resolution for PEIA," she told AlterNet on her first day back. "We didn't ask for a task force."

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“We still have retirees who stood on the line with us every day who got nothing from doing so," she continued, referring to the retired teachers and other school employees. “The pay raise doesn't help them at all. My friend, Kathy, still has to work two jobs in her retirement to pay her benefits. They want us to trust this government, on a promise. We don't [know] where the funding is coming for the raises or to fix PEIA or even the specifics of the [task force].”

Still, she’s immensely proud of what she and her colleagues accomplished. After all, Howard-Jack never expected to be debating the merits of a PEIA task force, let alone striking in the first place.

As her colleagues were debating whether to go on strike, Howard-Jack didn't think she'd get involved. She had recently returned to classroom teaching after four years of working for the West Virginia Department of Education and West Virginia Wesleyan College, and "I wasn't sure we would really gain momentum," she told AlterNet. As 2017 went on, however, "I kept hearing from a wide variety of teachers how much they were struggling. It broke my heart to hear their stories."

Then she got her first paycheck after being back in the classroom, and "I thought there was something terribly wrong. My pay was less than when I left." After that, she says, "I was fully ready to fight. I wrote an op-ed called 'Battle Cry of a Redneck Revolution.'"  

She used the skills gained from her work as founding director and chair of two activist groups, Upshur Indivisible and Upshur County Indivisible-Votes. "I garnered the support of the groups by hosting the first two rallies to get teachers accustomed to protesting...I spent the days and endless hours chanting and yelling at closed doors outside of the Senate at the State Capitol. I carried and displayed daily a large banner saying, ‘Make 'em Pay in May,’ to add pressure and garner media attention, which also adds pressure. I used social media as a tool to rally, share and inform. It was exhausting. Charleston is a two-hour drive each way for me.”

Much of the social media rallying was centered around a secret Facebook group started in 2017 by two teachers concerned about the issues that led to the strike. There were just 50 members of the group when Ryan Frankenberry, executive director of the West Virginia Working Families Party and a former labor organizer with the West Virginia branch of the American Federation of Teachers, was contacted by group members to seek advice on how to negotiate with PEIA.

The Facebook group, Frankenberry explained, “provided a place where geography didn’t matter, because our state is very spread out. It didn’t matter [what] your title [was] or how many years' experience you had.”

When the group membership grew, participants knew they had to take collective action, but a strike seemed like a pipe dream for the right-to-work state, where unions are barred from dues collection for collective bargaining. Frankenberry told AlterNet that when a group member contacted him for advice, they said, “Clearly we can’t strike. I said, clearly we can.”

After all, he continued, “in my time with the union, I always had people questioning, why don't we strike? There has been [that feeling] from various parts of the state and teacher population.”

West Virginia teachers last went on strike in 1990, and while it wasn’t state-wide (and West Virginia wasn’t yet a so-called right-to-work state), the memories of it were still fresh for some of the older participants.

Howard-Jack wasn’t yet a teacher in 1990, and while she could conjure memories of the strike, she was mostly focused on staying alert for this one. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been so tired, yet at the same time, so motivated. "There was so much to be done and no time to rest," she recalled.

"My muscles ached to the point that it was difficult to make myself go back to the capitol for another day, but I felt a responsibility and commitment to do all I could do to make sure teachers' requests were honored since they (we) had put so much on the line to make it happen."

She gained strength from her fellow teachers and the memories of coal miners strikes of the past. "The solidarity and feeling of resolve, the fighting spirit and the gracefulness of my fellow teachers was both touching and empowering; I will never forget it. The reminder of who we are as a state, what our ancestors fought and died for on Blair Mountain signified by the wearing of red bandanas, is forever engraved in my memory.”

Her students, too, gave her hope. While some students and parents worried about the impact of lost classroom time and missed sports, Howard-Jack believes they learned something about what it means to stand up for oneself, and to be civically engaged: "We imparted a vital lesson in standing up for what you believe in and doing so with dignity and love. This lesson was not taught in a classroom but in the community. We said to them, you can do this, too, and you should. It is your right and your responsibility to be actively engaged in our democracy."

There was also support from her school district’s leadership. “Our superintendent and school administrators supported us and stood with us... They said to us and others, there is no us and them, teacher and administration; Upshur County Schools are one.”

The general public, parents and non-parents alike were also genuinely excited about the strike. As Howard-Jack explains, “We experienced wonderful support from most of the community and our students. Stores and individuals delivered food, counselors continued filling backpacks with food, with community support, cars honked in support. This was also important for students to witness, I believe.”

"I stood proudly together with my fellow teachers to fight against corruption and greed, just as our coal-mining ancestors did before us. I am more now proud than ever to be a Mountaineer from West-by-god Virginia."

Frankenberry believes that this momentum, this pride in standing up for workers’ rights, can lead to bigger progressive gains for West Virginia and will hopefully alleviate the fears of those concerned about the lack of improvements for PEIA, because, “everything we fought for during the strike was a progressive value,” and a "reminder of West Virginia’s union legacy.”

He thinks the state legislature, by avoiding conversations about using a tax on West Virginia’s abundant natural gas to pay for better health coverage, “did a great job of showing themselves to the public in most negative way I can explain. The reality is, they've got different priorities than we believe the rest of the state does.”

“When they asked ‘how are we going to afford it' [more money for PEIA] we quickly pointed to natural gas. We're just not taxing it at the levels that we should be.”

“This is gonna become a campaign issue,” Frankenberry continued. “They created a task force to discuss PEIA, and that's an opportunity to organize around.” He believes that West Virginia voters have “been messaged to by really bad corporations and political consultants,” who have spent "millions on anti-labor and anti-progressive policies.”

On the other hand, “when you provide the opportunity to ask questions and work through things, people come around.”

Frankenberry believes the teachers ended the strike at just the right time, that the fight for reforming PEIA and demanding that it be paid for with natural gas revenue, is a foundation upon which progressives can build an election-winning economic message: "We will absolutely change West Virginia,” he said. “We're going to have an incredible November."

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Ilana Novick is an AlterNet contributing writer and production editor.