The Strike Is On

Jay O'Neal

"We’re not going back to work until there’s solid proof that our demands are going to be met," a teacher unionist on strike in West Virginia tells Jacobin.

West Virginia teachers, school service workers, and their supporters rally at the state capitol last month. Rich McGervey / Flickr

Interview by
Eric Blanc

Schools are still closed today in West Virginia.

On Tuesday night, Governor Jim Justice and union leaders announced that a deal had been reached and that the strike of over thirty thousand teachers and staff would end on Thursday. But the ranks were defiant, deciding to continue what amounts to an illegal wildcat strike until victory.

To discuss this remarkable turn of events, Jacobin’s Eric Blanc sat down with Jay O’Neal, a middle-school teacher and union activist in Charleston.

Eric Blanc

On Tuesday night, it was announced that the strike was resolved. Can you tell us about how things played out here on the ground?

Jay O'Neal

Many of us were protesting at the capitol on early Tuesday afternoon, and we decided to stay because word spread that NBC News would be filming live at 6 PM. We also knew that the union leadership was meeting at this time with the governor. But nobody knew what would happen. Up until this point, the governor had been obstinate — he kept insisting that nothing could be done to meet our demands.

So while the union leaders were with the governor, we were all out on the steps, waiting for the NBC newscast to start. There was a big crowd. As is the case these days, everybody was on their phones, trying to follow the news to get a sense of what was going on.

Within ten minutes, we found out through the governor’s press conference that a deal had been reached. Teachers and school staff would get a 5 percent pay raise, and 3 percent for all state employees. The governor also said that a task force would be set up to figure out how to improve PEIA, our statewide health insurance plan for public sector workers.

Fifteen minutes after the press conference, union leaders came out and addressed the crowd. The basic problem was that they presented this deal as a victory. They told us we’d be out on strike one more day, then return to school on Thursday.

People were up in arms, really frustrated. Of course, a 5 percent raise is great, but what we’ve been really fighting for in this struggle is PEIA. This has been a huge issue, causing problems for years. They’ve been cutting our health insurance over and over, making it really expensive to survive.

So when it was announced that all we got on PEIA was a task force, people were upset. Teachers in the crowd started interrupting and yelling at our leaders: “We’re not going back in for that!” Everyone started chanting, “We are the union bosses! We are the union bosses!” and “Back to the table! Back to the table!”

Strikers now have a sense of our power, and we don’t want to back down. We weren’t satisfied with the deal. Again, this is mainly because of the health insurance. People are nervous and rightly cynical that the state government has any actual intention to fix this. A lot of teachers are now awakening to what’s happening at our statehouse.

We need to see real movement, real solutions, for PEIA. We need a new revenue source. A lot of us have been saying that the solution is a severance tax on natural gas. This would only tax the big out-of-state corporations, not ordinary West Virginians.

Eric Blanc

What was the dynamic like yesterday?

Jay O'Neal

I was at the capitol yesterday morning and, to be honest, there was a sense of chaos. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. When I asked the union staffers, they just said, “I don’t know.”

The legislators were in session, but they complained that they couldn’t vote on anything since they had not been delivered any details from the governor. It was so chaotic that there were strong rumors that Governor Justice had resigned — he even had to respond to this on Twitter, to tell people that these were just rumors.

From below, I can only really speak about the situation in my county, which is local to Charleston. We decided to have a meeting at 1 PM to try to straighten things out and to get some correct information. It was all super last minute, we had to plan it in a couple of hours. We met in a nearby church. The room was absolutely packed, with pews and aisles filled way past capacity.

The local county presidents of the three different unions — the two teachers’ unions and the staff union — wanted to get information out about the deal. But it got really heated, quick. I think teachers let out their frustration.

The general sentiment was: hey, the first time we found out about this supposed settlement was on TV, we wish we would have been told first. When one of the union staff said, “We want to be democratic,” someone shouted out, “You weren’t democratic Tuesday night!”

Honestly, I was worried that the meeting might spiral out of control. But then a teacher from the floor spoke up and said: “We want to vote, we want to decide when to go back in.” This really expressed where people are at. In my county at least, the sentiment is that we’re not going back to work until there’s solid proof that our demands are going to be met. Our biggest fear is that they’re just going to keep pushing back the question of PEIA.

After the meeting, we building reps met. It was agreed that we were willing to stick it out. But we needed to hear from everyone else. My county is the biggest, and we had to find a way to allow all school employees to vote on this in a matter of hours. Every school is different, but at my school I used our phone tree and texted or called everyone to see where they stood.

Overall, the big majority wanted to stay out. I reported back to our county union reps, who reported back to the superintendent. The votes must have gone the same way at the other schools, because the county superintendent cancelled classes for the next day.

Earlier in the strike, when there was more direction from the union statewide, we found out more or less at the same time whether other counties were going out the next day. But last night it was very slow moving. It was nerve wracking.

This time we had to wait to hear back, county by county. Each county had to vote first, then report to their superintendent. Eventually, late in the evening, we found out that all fifty-five counties had decided to stay out on strike. It was really something, because we know we need unity to win.

Also, I really want to give a lot of credit to the service personnel in the schools. This is a big difference from the 1990 strike: this time all school employees are on board. This makes a huge difference, because the buses aren’t running. And without these, students can’t get to school.

Bus drivers are a real linchpin of the strike. So are the cooks. We live in a high-poverty state, and a lot of our students really depend on the free lunches provided at school. So with all the personnel on board, we’re a lot stronger.

Eric Blanc

Can you give our readers a sense of how the strike is being organized at the school level?

Jay O'Neal

It’s very fluid, and it seems to vary a bit school by school. But generally, it’s all very bottom-up, very organic. We meet, then decide. And keep in mind: not all employees and not all strikers are union members, since we live in a “right-to-work” state.

So basically what you have is people on the ground floor saying: “We want to take a vote, we want to decide.” Then we pass our decisions up to our union representatives on a county-wide level. The union county leaders do a lot, and they have generally been good. They tell the school sites, “We want to support you,” and they pass up our decisions to the state leadership.

And we know that we need the statewide union leadership too. They’re the ones negotiating with the governor and the legislature. We need them, and we need them to listen to the ranks. Clearly, people are frustrated. But to their credit, many top union leaders apologized after Tuesday. They wanted to make amends, and they told us: “We’re learning as we go, too.” People were very happy to hear that.

One other big aspect of our organizing is Facebook. Though sometimes this leads to a bunch of rumors, generally it has been more helpful than hurtful. We have a big Facebook page, and we do a lot of organizing through it. It’s one of the main ways we can coordinate between counties, to get a sense of where they’re at, to discuss the way forward, and to encourage each other to stay strong.

Eric Blanc

How have parents reacted to the strike?

Jay O'Neal

I think, overall, they’ve been very supportive. Before the walkouts started, teachers worked really hard to make sure students would be fed during the strike. We’ve worked with food banks, organizations, and churches to provide lots of food and bag lunches to everyone.

Parents saw that we really do care about the children. They also saw that we weren’t doing this on the spur of the moment. Before the strike, we spent weeks and weeks outside the schools, with signs, talking to parents, explaining what was going on.

Of course, there are a few detractors, but we’re mostly getting support. I do worry, though, about how things will play out after Tuesday. It was announced that the strike was over, but obviously we’re still striking. This could potentially divide things.

But I’m hoping that the correct information gets out. Hopefully, people will see that the reason the teachers are still out is because the legislature and governor haven’t upheld their side of the bargain.

Eric Blanc

Your strike is inspiring people across the United States. What can individuals and organizations do to show their support?

Jay O'Neal

Well, first of all there’s a strike fund that people can donate to. Every little bit helps. The folks who set it up are trustworthy, and it gets distributed to all the different sectors in the strike.

But, most of all, we want the public’s eyes to stay on West Virginia, on the struggle happening here. This is a fight of working people versus the large corporations. These big companies have controlled and exploited our state for over a century. Historically, it was the coal corporations. But now it’s more the natural gas companies that are calling the shots. We need national exposure on these conflicts.

People like to dismiss West Virginia as Trumpland. But that’s a simplification. A lot of people here didn’t vote for Trump. And you also have a lot of people who voted for him, but who are involved in the strike. Everyone is now saying, “I know when I’m being screwed over. Enough is enough.” Folks are waking up.