Defying union leadership, West Virginia teachers strike, offer a defiant model for labor in the future

Screencap courtesy The Real News Network

Saddled with some of the lowest pay and worst benefits in the nation, all teachers in all 55 West Virginia counties decided they had enough and launched what is as of today a strike that has last seven school days.. They are demanding better compensation the curbing of healthcare costs which have skyrocketed in recent years.

Further raising the stakes in West Virginia, the Supreme Court began hearing Janus v. AFSCME, which is about whether public unions can continue to collect union dues from employees who don’t join the union that represents them. The case is connected to some of the same far-right dark money donors who have spent billions swinging US politics to the right over the past several decades. Now  the conservative-leaning court is expected rule in favor of the plaintiffs and deal a major blow to unions by doing away with mandatory dues-paying for unionized public sector employees.

West Virginia is a right to work state which means workers don’t have collective bargaining or the right to strike though they are on strike anyway.

“We’d love to go back to the classroom. Every teacher here would love to go back to the classroom. It’s a matter of getting us to the table and let’s come up with a solution to this problem. We can’t do that when they’re not even bringing us to the table,” said Dale Lee, a 22 year high school special education teacher who’s on leave of absence to serve as president of the West Virginia Education Association.

Jay O’Neal is a teacher at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Charleston, West Virginia and one of the many teachers striking. He was about go to the capital to rally and lobby with some fellow teachers, but took a few times to discuss the strike and what it means.

The Real News: It was widely reported over the past few days that there was a deal struck that would give you a 5% raise and then a promise to deal with the rising healthcare costs. Why weren’t teachers happy with that deal that was struck between the leadership of the union and the governor?

Jay O’Neal: Well I think the biggest reason is, to be honest, because of past action we don’t trust our legislature or our governor. So we want to see real concrete proof that they’re doing this. Some legislation did come out yesterday for the 5% raise, but we want to know that it’s actually signed and passed before we go back. And they have set up what they’re calling a taskforce for the insurance, and I think a lot of us, I’ll be honest, are willing to give them a good faith effort on that and see where that goes. But again we need to see concrete proof that these things are happening, and we just felt like yesterday there wasn’t enough yet and we didn’t feel like it warranted us going back.

RNN: So what was your reaction when the union leadership announced that the strike was over, a deal had been reached? How did you react to that?

JO: I think a lot of us were just a little frustrated that they didn’t talk to us first. It was hard to get that announcement coming from the press conference and even actually coming from the governor himself, before we heard it. So I think we were a little blindsided. It’s not that we didn’t like a lot of the things in that, it’s more the delivery and the way it came to us.

RNN: What we have reported previously and what I asked Dale Lee, the head of the West Virginia Education Association, one of the main teachers unions, I asked him where did the inspiration for this strike come from? And he acknowledged that it came from the ground up, it came from the grassroots. That really pushed the strike forward. And so it’d be surprising to some, maybe disappointing, that the rank and file weren’t consulted for this deal.

JO’: Yeah I think that’s the thing, it really came from the ground up. This has definitely been a bottom-up movement the whole time. And I think we felt like we initially voted to walk out and to take this move, and I think we kind of wanted to feel like we were voting to come back now and check that at least the majority of us were satisfied with what happened.

RNN: Another aspect of this we reported is that the state’s attorney general claimed that this strike is illegal and it seems like that’s true, this strike is illegal. Talk about that, that teachers are putting a lot on the line here by defying the state and now defying their union leadership by going on the picket lines.

JO: So it’s true, we don’t have a collective bargaining in West Virginia, and so do a lot of the teachers and school service personnel, bus drivers, cooks, everyone. First of all they’re not even all union members. Really they’d be more like associations here for teachers and service personnel. So because of that, yeah it’s illegal to walk out, but I think we just are getting to the point that we thought we don’t have a lot of other options. We’ve tried for years to talk to our legislature, to lobby them, write them, call them, all these things. Nothing seems to be working. And we’re at the point now where we have over 700 unfilled vacancies in schools, and so it’s just getting frustrating seeing teachers leave to go to other states because it can pay five or ten thousand dollars more just to hop the state border and go next door. And teachers are realizing, what do we have to lose? We don’t have anything else so we’ve got to try something drastic, and I think that’s how we got to this point.

RNN: And finally, how long do you think it’s gonna take to win these concessions over healthcare, over pay? And I understand there’s attempts to decertify the training, the profession, or allow for non-certified teachers to help fill that gap, the need of teachers.

JO: Yeah, there’s been a lot of talk about that, even months ago of trying to kind of lower the certification requirements to get more people in the classrooms. Really they just need a big support issue of pay and our eroding health benefits. I hope this doesn’t last much longer, I do feel like there’s been some really positive movements in the last few days. For instance, the pay raise bill passed the House yesterday, we just need it to pass the Senate soon. So hopefully not too much longer but I think all of us are prepared to stay out as long as it takes to get things done.

The strike has larger implications for the future of labor in the country. Lois Weiner, director of urban education and teacher union policy project at the New Jersey City University recently wrote the In These Times piece, “West Virginia Teachers are Showing How Unions Can Win, Even if They Lose Janus.”

“The discussion among West Virginia teachers about how they organize this for people who have collective bargaining is very important. There’s a discussion going on about, ‘Well, I can’t strike because if I strike I’ll lose my job.’ And these people, they do not legally have, in West Virginia, they don’t have collective bargaining and they don’t have the right to strike. It’s a right to work state. But they organized it. And the question is how did they organize it and what are we going to learn from it,” Weiner said.

The strike exposes the limits of the mainstream media Weiner observed.

“The other thing is West Virginia is portrayed, the Times just carried an article that portrayed it as a deep red state. And I think that that is a really dangerous, misleading oversimplification about the politics. And the walkout shows that. The walkout and the fact that West Virginia voted for Sanders in the primaries,” Weiner said. “And it was the Sanders campaign that really motivated and energized hundreds of teachers. Hundreds of teachers, including the leadership, the rank and file leadership of this movement. And I think this has lessons and ramifications for the labor movement nationally and also for, obviously, for the state unions in West Virginia, that you cannot continue supporting the leadership of the Democratic party and relying on them to get you gains. It’s not gonna happen. We need direct action and we need to be telling these politicians what to do.”

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