Activism

We Are Watching a Working-Class Revolt in West Virginia

For years, states have cut school funding while reducing taxes on corporations. But teachers and workers are fighting back.

WV School Worker Action Rally, February 2018
Photo Credit: Rich McGervey / Flickr

Sometimes, working people push back.

Faced with jobs that don’t pay enough to make ends meet, health-care costs that break the budget, and public services exposed to countless rounds of cutbacks despite a growing economy, working people will push back. And, like the teachers across the state of West Virginia who walked out on strike for nine days and won meaningful raises and a freeze in health costs for all the state’s public employees, working people who push back sometimes win.

The simple message that it’s possible to fight back and win is powerful. It is surely resonating with teachers in Oklahoma, who, like their counterparts in West Virginia, are among the most underpaid in the nation: They are preparing for their own statewide rebellion against the funding cuts that have harmed the education of Oklahoma’s children and left their teachers struggling to get by.

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But the resonance should be wider: Data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show that most states across the country cut school funding after the Great Recession, and the majority never fully restored their support. In 2015, 29 states were still supplying less overall funding per student than they provided in 2008. In many of the states with the largest cutbacks in school funding, policymakers steeply reduced taxes for corporations and the wealthiest residents even as they drained education budgets, undermining schoolchildren and the teachers and staff who work every day to support them.

School funding cuts are a key example of how corporate lobbyists and other wealthy interests have manipulated the rules of our economy to consolidate their own power and wealth at the expense of not just our schools, but our broader communities, and the quality of jobs for public and private-sector workers alike.

The ideology of corporate windfalls and public austerity is everywhere in our national politics, from the massive corporate tax cuts passed by Congress to the Trump administration’s budget proposals slashing the basic services Americans depend on.

In fact, the same day a resolution to the West Virginia strike was announced, policymakers from both parties in the U.S. Senate voted to advance debate on a bill to weaken bank regulations, approving a law that the Congressional Budget Office projects will increase the likelihood that the public will again be called on to bail out large banks that maximize their profits at the public’s risk.

Funds are always available for another bank bailout, even as austerity insists that there is never enough money for the good schools, well-maintained streets, and quality health care our communities need—or for the solid, middle-class, union jobs that provision of these vital services has often brought to women and people of color for the first time.

And so part of the pushback includes demanding more from our public officials, demanding that they embrace an agenda that substantially addresses the economic challenges faced by working people and the families they support. We must fight back against a culture war that scapegoats immigrants and people of color and goads Americans to resent other working people, and train our eyes on the corporate greed that undermines prosperity for all our communities.

In West Virginia, the fight continues, as state legislators insist that raises for public workers can only come at the expense of health care for the poor and other public services—even as teachers continue to call for fossil fuel companies to pay their fair share of taxes to a state that has long contributed to their wealth.

In an atmosphere of relentless cutbacks to public services, with our freedom to join together in unions under attack at the Supreme Court and beyond, we need the example set by West Virginia teachers—and their victory—more than ever.

 

Amy Traub is associate director of policy and research at Demos. She is the author of "The Plastic Safety Net: Findings from the 2012 National Survey on Credit Card Debt of Low- And Middle-Income Households," and "Discrediting America: The Urgent Need To Reform The Nation's Credit Reporting Industry," among other reports and research.