What a time to be alive!
When Trump was elected President in November of 2016, my wife and I were in dire straits. We didn’t socialize for about two weeks after, wanting to avoid the impending conversations about the elections and the fallout soon to come. In our first monthly EDiTE meeting, one of my colleagues asked, “What the hell happened to your country?” And rightfully so. We had seen the hate and vitriol that Trump helped usher to the forefront on the campaign trail. It’s no secret that Trump has a history of corruption in his personal business dealings. My fear was that the hate and corruption would dominate both the social and political sphere.
And the teachers won!
To some degree, this has come to pass. We saw this with the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville; the corrupt dealings of both the president, his family, and his cabinet; and the absolutely horrific tax bill that leverages the future of everyday Americans for gifts to the donor class. That being said, what I didn’t anticipate was how Trumpism would galvanize opposition. We first saw this with the incredible Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration which involved about half a million people in Washington, D.C., and between 3.2 and 5.2 million people across the country. Then we saw whole cities sign on to the Paris Agreement to stave off climate change when Trump pulled the U.S. out. Now we’ve seen all public school teachers from the state of West Virginia strike for better working conditions while a landmark, right-wing funded Supreme Court case aiming to knee-cap unions unfolds in the background. And the teachers won! So, I’ll say it again: What a time to be alive!
Many teachers have reported living paycheck to paycheck or working a second or third job to make up for the disparities. So enough was enough for teachers in West Virginia.
While the national spotlight should have been on the strike in West Virginia, it garnered little attention from the main stream media until its second week. The main fight was over pay and benefits. Teachers in West Virginia are some of the lowest paid in the country. Average pay for West Virginia ranks 48th in the country. At around $44,000, it’s $14,000 below the national average of around $58,000. Just for a sense of scale, my starting pay as a teacher in Memphis was around $42,000 per year and Tennessee ranks 39th with an average of around $48,000. Furthermore, the Public Employees Insurance Agency, or PEIA, has increasingly shouldered teachers with the responsibility of higher healthcare costs. Apparently, it even went so far as to demand teachers check in with a Fitbit, Apple Watch, or the like to track their activity via a platform known as Go365. All of this created an untenable situation for teachers in West Virginia, many of whom have reported living paycheck to paycheck or working a second or third job to make up for the disparities. So enough was enough for teachers in West Virginia.
Last summer two teachers and union activists, Jay O’Neal and Michael Mochaidean, began a secret Facebook page to organize action against the legislature that has been enacting these draconian measures against teachers. The key to their support seems to come from taking a leaf out of the radical and inclusive International Workers of the World (IWW) playbook, of which at least Mochaidean is a member. The issues affecting teachers, after all, affect others as well. First came the inclusion of all public employees in their organizing on social media. Then teachers were urged to get out into the community and to assist with childcare as well as participate in food drives for students and families. As a result, the teachers garnered widespread support from fellow public employees, parents and students. And through these grassroots organizing and agitation, what began as a small cadre of teachers on Facebook ballooned into one of the biggest acts of labor that America has seen in decades with some 20,000 teachers in all 55 counties striking at once. And the state took notice.
Throughout the strike, teachers, public employees, and supportive citizens descended on the capital Charleston en masse to protest.
Some observers initially thought these efforts would be a flash in the pan given that the strike began on a Thursday and would lead to the equivalent of an impromptu long weekend without any substantial change. With the strike lasting a total of nine days, that prediction turned out to be very wrong. Throughout the strike, teachers, public employees, and supportive citizens descended on the capital Charleston en masse to protest, chant, and even break out in renditions of Twisted Sister and John Denver’s love note to West Virginia, Take Me Home, Country Roads. How do you not get goosebumps watching that last one? Gov. Jim Justice, famous for being a Republican flipping to Democrat and then flopping back to Republican again, tried to broker a deal for a 5% raise for teachers and a 3% raise for all other public employees, but failed to address the core issue of benefits. The union bosses, who by their nature of mediation are built for compromise, seemed to accept the offer while the rank and file members flatly and uniformly rejected it. Furthermore, the state senate rejected to vote on the bill. So, the strike continued.
West Virginia is not an isolated case. State legislatures across the U.S. have kicked the proverbial can down the road with regard to public funding. Many legislatures have continually cut taxes under the auspices of attracting businesses to their states. While many working-class people like lower taxes, lower taxes have consequences. One such consequence is less money for students and teachers. In my home state of Tennessee for example, the second iteration of the Basic Education Program, the main funding mechanism for education in the state, didn’t fully funded until about ten years after its inception and still we’re seeing budgetary shortfalls. In Nashville, budgetary constraints have led the district to reshuffle its efforts and raise the cap for increased Title I funds (targeted assistance schools serving low income students) from 50% to 75%, which has raised funding for some schools while decreasing it for others. In Memphis, it seems to be a perennial event for the district to consider cutting retirement benefits for either employees past or future due to a $1 billion liability resulting from a merger and then demerger of the county school system. Districts across the country are feeling the squeeze in funding due to their legislatures kowtowing to business interests. For these reasons, the West Virginia strike seems to be stirring something in states across the U.S. There are indications that teachers in Oklahoma might follow suit and I for one would be very proud if Tennessee did the same to fight for better conditions for students and teachers.
Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions!
Another problem stems from negative narratives of teachers at the national level. There are two narratives about teachers that have been popularized under neoliberal education reform in the States. The first is that the educational struggles of students are the failure of teachers rather than a failure of society. In 2010, Evan Thomas penned an article for Newsweek titled “Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers” and it was accompanied by now an infamous cover with the heading “The Key to Saving American Education” with a picture of chalkboard in the background with “We Must Fire Bad Teachers” scribbled Bart Simpson-style. This occurred despite the fact that poverty is the single most defining factor in a student’s life. It affects his or her level of math and reading even before kindergarten. Children in poverty tend to have more learning disabilities and developmental delays. Being born into poverty means you’re more likely to drop out of high school and end up in prison. In fact, all of this is cyclical as poverty begets poverty, yet educators have become the scapegoats for the failure of America to care for its most vulnerable citizens.
To make matters worse, ed reform has promulgated the idea of “putting children before adults” as a means to cut off discussion of teachers’ working conditions. This quotable, but very misguided idea is often tweeted in response to union activity on behalf of its members. But it fails to understand that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. While the talking heads in ed reform would like to relegate the issue to wages, union contracts often underscore this idea of shared conditions and work to include additional resources for students and lower student-to-teacher ratios. In addition, there is the fact that you can’t attract or keep good teachers with bad pay and poor benefits, and many states are facing teacher shortages. In the classic frame of competition, ed reform would like to characterize the issue as “either/or” while unions place it as “both/and.” This shared sense of struggle is perhaps one of the biggest reasons that the strike in West Virginia was so successful and so supported. This direct refutation of a toxic narrative is also probably a good reason the wonks in ed reform have largely been silent on the subject.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect to this whole situation is that in the background a landmark labor case is being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 takes on the 40-year-old precedent of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that allowed public sector unions to have a two-tiered system. Membership meant dues went toward both representation via collective bargaining as well as lobbying and other political activity. However, non-members still benefit from union representation, so non-members pay “fair-share” or “agency fees” (different labels from different sides of the political spectrum for the same thing). Janus or, rather, the lawyers paid for by conservative donors argue that union activities are inherently political and thus impede one’s right to free speech.
Most folks, including myself, believe the Court will side with Janus and knock down these fair-share fees. The Court is largely conservative now that Trump’s appointee, Neil Gorsuch, has been appointed, creating a 5-4 split in favor of Conservative justices. Many on the Left believe this would be a major blow to union membership. As the reasoning goes, if you’re not forced to join, why would you? I, however, am not so pessimistic. You see, the argument on protected speech works both ways in the States. The main issue in favor of the Left lies with right-to-work states, mainly in South, where, essentially, union due collection is already voluntary and collective bargaining has been banned. However, the reasoning goes that if union activity is political speech, it’s protected speech and thus collective bargaining cannot be outlawed. Several cases in several states have already been teed up for this exact argument.
To hammer the point down, West Virginia is already a right-to-work state and, as is the case with many such states, striking is illegal. They’ve been careful to call it a “work stoppage,” but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…I personally wonder if union activity is indeed protected free speech if we won’t see cases brought to the fore on strikes being protected speech. Even so, if Janus goes the way everyone expects it to, then we might very well see unions strengthened with the right to on-the-ground mobilizing efforts that we honestly haven’t seen since the early days of the Wobblies, the members of the IWW.
After nine straight days of striking and protests at the state capital, the teachers in West Virginia got exactly what they wanted.
After nine straight days of striking and protests at the state capital, the teachers in West Virginia got exactly what they wanted. On Tuesday afternoon, the very time I sat down to write about this tremendous endeavor, the legislature came to a deal. A standalone bill was passed that gave all public employees a 5% raise, the austere changes to the PEIA were dropped, and Go365 was abandoned. But wait, there’s more. As Jay O’Neal shares in an interview in Jacobin Magazine, the strike brought a lot of attention to the state legislature and a lot of bad bills were stopped in their tracks. In particular, a charter school bill, allowing for the privatization of education and diverting funds from traditional public schools, and a number of anti-union bills were stalled in the legislature.
There’s no way to overstate it: this is a huge win for teachers and public education in West Virginia and the labor movement at large in the States. Teachers celebrated in the capitol building, but the fight isn’t over. The senate agreed to the bill to raise salaries with the caveat to slash $20 million from the state’s budget. As such, the Democrats in the legislature urged the crowd to show up in November to vote and the crowd chanted in agreement. And before they left, they chanted “West Virginia first; Oklahoma next!” urging their Okie brethren who are considering their own strike.
So, I’m going to say it a third time: What a time to be alive!
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