Revolt in the Mountains! Teachers Strike!

On a rainy day, dozens and dozens of teachers and other workers in solidarity from three or more counties lined the streets and stood outside of the capitol building, demanding better wages and conditions. Several speakers, including teachers and union representatives, spoke passionately about what was going on with respect to the plight of the teachers, often drawing comparisons of company scrip and labor battles of the past.

After confirming a resolution had not been reached between the unions and the state legislator, union leaders shouted to the masses of workers standing in the drenching rain. They gave the marching orders for the strike, and so began the event that would (again) shake the state of West Virginia to its foundations. The central question surrounding this is quite simply: how did we get here? What happened, or didn’t happen, which pushed the teaching force within West Virginia to abandon the blackboards and join the pickets? To answer this and provide a comprehensive look at this situation we must look at the history of another teacher strike which shut down 47 of West Virginia’s 55 counties for 11 days.

The year was 1990, the month was May and starting on the 6th, the familiar call of “Strike!” reverberated through the famous West Virginian mountains. The teaching force, represented by 47 counties, announced they were going on strike, prompting the then Governor and the West Virginia legislature to declare the action “illegal” and threaten the striking teachers with sanctions in the form of suspensions without pay, outright dismissal, and/or the charging of teachers with misdemeanor crimes. Then-attorney general Roger Tompkins, speaking to then-State Superintendent Hank Makorie, stated: “There is no right to strike against the state. Thus, any strike or concerted work stoppage by public teachers of this state is illegal.”

The primary point of contention between the superintendents and state legislature on the one hand and the teachers and public employees on the other were wages; the West Virginia Education Association, which represented 16,000 of the state’s 22,000 public school teachers, quoted data from that time the average teacher pay within West Virginia was $21,904, ahead of only Mississippi, though the state legislature had proposed a 5% raise a month prior to the strike. The WVEA contended that this was insufficient and demanded a higher raise. Then-governor Caperton issued a statement to the state legislature that no such discussions would take place until the unions “became calm and civil,” which was code for ending the strike and the teachers returning to work before a new deal for a higher raise percentage had been negotiated and finalized. Ultimately after 11 days a settlement would been reached between the state and the unions.

Following this to the present-day strike, we have seen two decades of more and more tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of West Virginia’s working class, often making the material conditions for workers so exploitative that many move to neighboring states like Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Over time this has created the current vacancy epidemic. There are 700 teaching vacancies all throughout the state. West Virginia teachers and public employees do not have the same collective bargaining rights comparative to other states and very few trade unions provide representation.

This situation led to the strike of 2018, which has caused teachers in all 55 counties to go on strike for 11 days and shut down the state. We see here again disputes between the teachers and public employees and the state legislature and governor over wage raise percentages and better conditions. By now a very familiar pattern emerges, with Republican lawmakers continuously ranting and raving about how the state of West Virginia couldn’t possibly pay for any increases in wages for teachers and public employees because the state “simply doesn’t have the money.” Mainstream media have parroted these narratives with no further explanation as to how or why the strike happened. The reason being that the state has, from strike to strike, continuously drained the coffers of public funding with tax cuts for corporations, businesses, and the affluent at the expense of the West Virginian worker. Despite state legislature promises of raised wages, the cost of the teachers’ health insurance, PEIA or Public Employee Insurance Agency, would not only cancel out said wage increase, but would leave teachers in the negative, effectively paying to teach. Several teachers throughout the pre-strike demonstrations talked about how they would work 2-3 jobs throughout the summer just to be able to get through another year of teaching. Again the state legislature would threaten the teachers and again an ultimate agreement between the state and teachers would be reached with another wage increase of 5%.

Closely following this communication, workers working for the largest cable company in the state have gone on strike, also demanding higher wages and better conditions. In response the Frontiers company, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, had petitioned the Kanawha Corcuit Court for an injunction to force the striking workers to return to work, labeling the strike “rampant and unlawful behavior.” Through this verbiage we can see a continuance of these corporations defaulting to incendiary and melodramatic rhetoric, demonizing the work force instead of trying to negotiate a legitimate settlement. The strike still ongoing.

It may seem irrational for a state to implement, repeatedly and continuously, the deep slashing of corporate-business taxes all under the auspices of “making West Virginia more competitive with other states.” In effect this has not equated to any measurable increase in business either coming to or continuing to operate within the state, but has been exclusively observed to equate to the private wealth accumulation of political-financial leaders, most of whom do not even reside in West Virginia – nothing more.

These policies have come in the form of reducing the corporate income tax from 9 to 6.5 percent starting from 2006 to date, the reduction of the groceries tax from 6 percent to 3 percent before scrapping the tax all together, scrapping of the corporate charter tax, alternative minimum tax, increased homestead exemption, and so on. Piece by piece, tax by tax, a bi-partisan (and I do stress bi-partisan here) group of politicians picked away at virtually every tax policy in the state until the state went completely bankrupt. For whose benefit was all this done? Did any worker legitimately benefit from any of this? Or was this all for the benefit of the state and federal managerial-capitalist class and their transnational corporate partners?

Learning from these lessons, both with respect to the entire history of labor struggle in the state of West Virginia and within the last two or three decades in particular, the limitations for change from the political establishment is glaringly clear. We have no choice but to continuously push for radical change and continued organization among the working class to pursue our interests. It has been demonstrated by all parties and personalities within the liberal parties and administrations that the plight of the West Virginian worker is of no concern. The state is nothing more than a point of resource and wealth extraction by members of the American managerial-capitalist class, within and without the state, as well the transnational corporate entities. Now, more than ever, workers must push forward to the revolution.

Categories: Labor, U.S. News, Workers Struggle

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