Analysis Economic Justice

How the West Virginia Teacher Strike Was Made

Rita Mae Reese

Powerful social movements throughout history have been led by women and children, and the statewide strike in West Virginia, along with the movement ignited by students from Parkland, might be the sign of major changes ahead.

While the pussy hat became the best-known symbol of the Women’s March in 2017, the West Virginia education strikers of 2018 had their own head gear: red bandanas and occasional bunny ears. The bandanas were a nod to labor history in West Virginia—striking miners at the Battle of Blair Mountain tied the bandanas around their necks to symbolize solidarity that spanned differences in ethnicities and languages, making them the original rednecks. But it was also a defiant gesture to Gov. Jim Justice (R), who told a crowd at a town hall at Wheeling Park High School that he could be “the town redneck, too.”

The bunny ears came after Governor Justice declared the teachers were “dumb bunnies” if they trusted other politicians rather than him.

West Virginia teachers were angry, not just about rising health care costs, but about the asinine behavior, lack of concern, and obvious contempt from their legislators.

The anger of the teachers took some of those legislators, and even union leadership, by surprise. Others say it was a long time coming and clearly visible. State Del. Mike Pushkin (D) said in a phone interview with Rewire.News that he believes it goes back to the governor’s State of the State address, when he and his newly adopted Republican Party did “a victory lap before they’d run the race.” Pushkin said Justice declared the state was in the black, but the governor hadn’t contended with, among other things, the lack of a dedicated revenue stream for the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), which covers health care for thousands of current and retired public employees and their families.

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Boone County school librarian Debbie Null, one of the strikers and the treasurer of the Boone County teacher’s union, traced the origin of the strike back to meetings last fall about the PEIA where substantial cuts to benefits and increases to premiums were laid out. In an interview with Rewire.News, she recalled watching “retirees in tears, watching family members in tears” at their drug costs skyrocketing. The plan would have called for a 30 percent co-payment on prescriptions, rather than a $25 or $30 copay.

Ted Cheatham, the director of PEIA, is reported  to have told one concerned enrollee that he should “save up” the $300 each month for his daughter’s medications. (Cheatham’s salary is $144,704, nearly three times the reported average salary of a teacher in West Virginia.)

Earlier, Del. Eric Householder (R) suggested via Twitter that teachers cut back on expenses such as internet service, and get a second job. When six teachers arrived at his place of business to apply for a job, his wife, herself a teacher, called the police. Householder is now under fire for failing to pay taxes.

What bothered Null the most, she said, was when legislators made clear they “have money for businesses but not for you.” The money for businesses in question is a $140 million tax break on mining and manufacturing business inventory, money that would ordinarily mostly go to fund schools. Null believes that this tax break largely benefits corporate interests outside of the state.

So at the suggestion of Cheatham, a group of teachers went to the state capitol to talk about their concerns. Null said, “Most of [the lawmakers] gave nice political answers, but there were a handful of Republican senators who decided to use sarcasm.” These responses served to galvanize the teachers and they set to organizing.

Teachers singled out Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R) in particular for his disrespect with his repeated claims that the strike left West Virginia children hungry, but one of teachers’ first concerns was making sure the students would be fed during the strike. According to Null, they “activated the summer plan”: a collective of churches that have tasked themselves with feeding kids when school is out. They also reached out to other public employees, to let them know that the fight was for them too.

The teachers surprised union leadership and the state legislature with their sustained response, but they also might have surprised themselves: They spoke up and were heard. The success of the teachers in West Virginia, a “right-to-work” state where they had no legal right to strike, shows that they are finding effective ways to fight back. This is sending shock waves of hope to teachers in Kentucky, Oklahoma, and beyond.

Null said she was looking forward to going back to school and is cautiously optimistic about the deal reached by the state legislature and signed by the governor, but notes that the continued funding of PEIA is an “atomic bomb [the legislature is] holding over our heads.” The deal freezes the premiums and provides a modest pay increase, but it doesn’t fix the problem, and there’s a move to cut other public spending to pay for the increases.

Instead, Del. Pushkin would like to see the oil and gas industry provide a permanent revenue stream for PEIA in the form of a natural gas severance tax. He noted that the state is rich in natural resources but those riches have not benefited the majority of its citizens. And he believes that good schools, not corporate tax breaks, are what will bring businesses back to the state.

Schools depend on a largely female work force. Many have noted the long, proud history of labor activism in West Virginia, with some tracing the activism of the striking teachers to their “fathers and grandfathers” active in the coal mine wars. But this ignores the rich history of women organizers such as trailblazing union leader Mother Jones, or Fannie Sellins, who was killed during a coal mine strike.

Powerful social movements throughout history have been led by women and children, and the statewide strike in West Virginia, along with the movement ignited by students from Parkland, Florida, after the recent school shooting there, might be the sign of major changes ahead.

Certainly the spirit (and humor) of Mother Jones was evident in some of the picket signs and the social media of the striking teachers, such as Mandy Mote (@mommamote), who posted on Twitter: “Bless their hearts! They think that educators are going to break unity in the face of 20 stalling legislators. Honey, we repetitively manage 175+ hormonal teens during a full moon with just three of us on lunch duty. Y’all ain’t nothin’.”

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