Solidarity Forever: West Virginia Teachers Strike for Better Deal (Updates)

On Thursday, every public school in West Virginia was closed as teachers marched on the capitol “demanding higher wages and better benefits.” The night before, per the same article, Governor Jim Justice signed legislation “granting teachers a 2% pay increase starting in July, followed by 1% pay increases over the next two years.”

Citing an increase in the cost of living — notably rising healthcare premiums — the teachers say that the 2% pay increase, in addition to a 1% raise in 2019 and 2020, is not good enough. When you read stories about how some educators work on the weekends at places like Hardee’s, or Wal-Mart, it’s hard to argue that point.

Well, you know me. I’m the guy who only gets excited when there’s a labor dispute. And in said labor dispute(s), I (almost) invariably side with the workers. That is me, and you know this.

With that said, what’s interesting about West Virginia is not the dispute with the teachers itself. It’s the fact that it’s West Virginia. Is it possible — and stop me if I’m getting too ahead of myself — that a state viewed as being so backwards, and filled with so many opioid-addicted, tooth-starved hicks, could lead the nation’s charge in labor solidarity?

It seems counterintuitive, but in reality it’s almost too obvious to not indeed turn out being the case. The quality of life in The South is disproportionately worse than the rest of the country, making it the logical location for American workers to generate a significant, and perhaps long overdue, uprising. According to this website that I cannot vouch for but nonetheless seems legit, West Virginia ranks 41st in the United States on the aggregate (based on healthcare, education, infrastructure, economy, etc). Below are the nine states that graded worse:

  • Kentucky (42)
  • Alaska (43)
  • Oklahoma (44)
  • South Carolina (45)
  • New Mexico (46)
  • Alabama (47)
  • Arkansas (48)
  • Mississippi (49)
  • Louisiana (50)

With the exception of Alaska, that’s The South. If I’m being totally fair it’s probably best to separate New Mexico — which is more like Arizona than Alabama — from the rest of that southern pack. But it hardly changes the message here: living in that general region kind of sucks.

Per the chart, West Virginia is terrible at everything that matters (they are 44th in education, 46th in healthcare and 49th in economy) and at best halfway decent at the rest (18th in crime, 19th in government and 20th in “opportunity”). If you were, for argument’s sake, to register a similar list made up only of the first three categories, one would have a difficult time finding a republic much weaker than West Virginia.

People like to think of California and New York as bastions of Progressivism, and when it comes to social issues that is mostly true. However, if we discuss actual policies that help the lives of workers, neither state passes the stink test. After all, it was the California Democrats — led hilariously by a lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical industry — who in 2017 killed legislation for a single-payer healthcare program. New York, whose leadership appears slightly less nefarious, has its own roadblocks on the issue.

But this is, essentially, the point I have been trying to make on this blog for a long time: the real Progressives are the activists, not the so-called “liberal” politicians. Even in California and New York, two of the bluest states on the map, it’s the Democratic leadership itself that thwarts the will of the people. Please correct the Communist-colored glasses I see the world through, but there is something specially undemocratic about that.

This is why West Virginia is so important, because if their teachers strike and win, or at least get closer to what they are asking for, it will in some way restore my faith in humanity that workers can win anywhere. America is starving for these types of demonstrations, partly since it’s high time that labor get a better deal, and partly since someone has got to be the leader. West Virginia: I know I probably said some shitty things at your expense when I was next door in Blacksburg, but that was merely for the song and dance of a friendly rivalry.

To keep this blog rather short (for a change), it just has to be said that workers are not asking for anything that they don’t already deserve. West Virginia teachers are not holding out so they can get paid like doctors or attorneys. They are simply asking to be given a reasonable chance to compete with the soaring costs of their lives. They are asking that you give them back some of their dignity, such that they won’t have to work weekend jobs at fast food chains and Wal-Mart — two industries notorious for exploiting and under-compensating their employees — just to make ends meet.

Is this too much to ask?

It would be ironic, as well as kind of beautiful, if a place in the supposedly backwards pocket of the United States turned into the tip of the sword in showing the rest of the country the way.

(Update: 2/26/18, 10:55 P.M.): The teachers’ strike will continue through Tuesday, as 20,000 teachers and 13,000 school service employees among 55 counties remain in the capitol of Charleston. I’m kind of jealous of all those West Virginia kids being blessed by a free vacation like this.

The plight of the educators is buoyed by support from various other unions in the state, including the United Mine Workers of America — whose president Cecil E. Roberts declared: “workers who stand united will never be defeated.”

Though it’s noted that “some progress has been made,” nothing really matters until a deal is official. Since every public school district in the state is cancelled, apparently indefinitely, the teachers seem to hold the position of strength. Since they have already come this far, they may as well hold out until they get what’s coming to them.

What’s more problematic, at least to me — in an annoying way — is how little coverage this strike is receiving nationally. Can we please get off Russia and Trump for two seconds to talk about West Virginia, or the ongoing Flint Water Crises, or DAPL, or anything substantive? I fear I already know the answer, which is why I should probably stop being annoyed by it.

(Update #2: 2/27/18, 9:52 P.M.): Per Governor Jim Justice, West Virginia teachers will return to class on Thursday, receiving a 3% raise in 2018 and 5% raise in 2019. If you are keeping track at home, that goes down as a Win for the good guys.

As if it needed to be said: this is fantastic news for the teachers of WV, and for American workers as a whole. People need to see, and know, that when labor comes together with a common objective, they win. This story, as I have already lamented, didn’t receive the amount of national attention it deserved. That is reserved for mass shootings and car chases, or the last meal Donald Trump ate and what it means. As I always say, the issues are not sexy. In this case they were hardly worthy of a clearing of the throat from places like MSNBC and CNN and Fox News, but this strike really happened. And the workers won.

The next step — something that probably would prompt national coverage — is getting employees at Wal-Mart and Amazon to band against the unapologetic greed of the Walton family and Jeff Bezos. It’s one thing if 20,000 teachers, and some 13,000 school officials and personnel march on the capitol. It’s something entirely different when hundreds of thousands, or millions of people do the same thing. Only they wouldn’t be changing the local politics of a city or state; they would change the very foundation of the country. Nothing would be the same, but in the best way possible.

(Update #3: 3/3/18, 11:16 PM): FORGET THE LAST UPDATE.

Per CNN dot com: “The state Senate approved a bill Saturday night to decrease proposed pay raises from 5% to 4% — a move which infuriated the teachers. The bill went to the state House, which rejected the Senate version. The House had earlier approved a 5% pay raise.”

Even after the two sides apparently agreed on a 5% pay raise, the state Senate tried to fuck over the West Virginia teachers without them noticing. This shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. Had the House approved a 10% pay raise the Senate would have tried to make it 9%; if the House had approved a 2% pay raise the Senate would have tried to make it 1%. Just good old fashion American politicians looking out for their constituents!

As such, the teachers will continue the strike until they receive the 5% that is due to them. Cool aside: they’ve inspired teachers from Oklahoma to organize.

This isn’t gonna stop, guys.