The Myths and Realities of the Education Strike Wave

Red State Revolt is a brilliant, exhaustive look at the teacher strike wave. Every organizer should read it.

West Virginia teachers, students, and supporters hold signs on a Morgantown street as they continue their strike on March 2, 2018. Spencer Platt / Getty

There has been a tendency to mythologize West Virginia’s nine-day education strike. By many popular accounts, my coworkers and I appeared to cohere ourselves out of thin air (or a Facebook group) as a fifty-five-strong, ready-to-strike mob. To be sure, our win was monumental and even shocking to many. The day we won, I sobbed as I stood at the capitol alongside fellow teachers and school service personnel, celebrating this blow to austerity, privatization, and union busting.

Despite a Republican-controlled statehouse and a coal baron governor, we had beaten back charter school legislation, attacks on seniority, a paycheck “protection” bill, and we had won a 5 percent raise for all public employees in the state. But these weren’t just tears of joy, they were a catharsis from the pressure and uncertainty that comes with months of sustained, high-stakes organizing — a crucial piece of our story that’s often overlooked.

In his brilliant, exhaustive look at the recent education uprisings, Eric Blanc chronicles how this hard work laid the basis for the strike and our victory in Red State Revolt. “Before they occur, successful strikes appear impossible to most people” he writes. “Afterwards, they seem almost inevitable. And underlying both of these mistaken assumptions is a failure to account for the agency of organizers.” Blanc’s book draws critical lessons from the teachers’ strike wave that swept West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona by centering the voices of striking workers, particularly those of rank-and-file organizers taking the lead.

Blanc came to West Virginia to report on our strike for Jacobin. As a former teacher, organizer, and fellow radical, he quickly earned the trust of our core militant teacher-organizers. He spent long days at the capitol organizing nationwide solidarity efforts and making himself genuinely useful on the ground. By embedding himself in the daily grind of the strike, he was able to capture moments that have been missed or misunderstood by the mainstream press.

Whereas other accounts have looked for easy answers, Red State Revolt digs deep, exploring the political terrain of West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona while extracting firsthand lessons from teachers, service personnel, superintendents, union leaders, parents, and students in the midst of a historic strike wave. This analysis is a must-read for organizers, educators, and leftists looking to defeat neoliberal forces and make their mark in the labor movement.

Blanc attributes much of our success in West Virginia to the presence of a “militant minority” of workplace organizers. He quotes fellow teacher-organizer Nicole McCormick: “Something was coming to a head, but it didn’t have to be a strike — and especially not a strike that won.” In fact, the decisions of my local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter in Charleston proved to be instrumental in the development and outcome of the strike.

In the summer of 2017, our chapter formed a labor committee for teachers. Our first meeting only had four attendees, but we got to work fast reading Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts, brushing up on West Virginia labor history, and brainstorming strategies and tactics. We were few in number, but we understood our potential power; after all, West Virginia’s last teacher strike, in 1990, ended with a $5,000 across-the-board raise.

As socialists, we also understood our responsibility to lead. Our union leadership had a long history of eschewing organizing in favor of lobbying, and they had just endorsed Jim Justice, West Virginia’s only billionaire, in our state’s gubernatorial race. Our DSA chapter disbanded early that fall, but Jay O’Neal and I stuck to the plan; in early October we created the Facebook group that would eventually grow to over twenty thousand members and become the hub of state-wide strike discussions.

Our strike has largely been portrayed as having clear party lines, with Democrats as our greatest champions and Republicans our staunchest opponents. While there’s no question that statehouse Democrats hitched their wagons to our cause at the onset of the uprising, Red State Revolt demonstrates that, in the case of West Virginia, the roots of austerity underlying our chief demands lie in the eighty-two-year Democratic Party reign from 1934 to 2014.

During this time, the party maintained fealty to the fossil fuel industry, passed massive corporate giveaways, and failed to grant collective bargaining rights to public employees. Blanc notes then-Governor Joe Manchin’s $220 million business and corporate tax cuts starved our state of critical funding for services like public employee pay and health care. Unsurprisingly, West Virginians have fled the Democratic Party in droves.

But as our movement gained momentum, Democrats saw a political opportunity; as socialists, we saw an opening to push left, and against the prevailing message from top union officials that “it’s not our job to decide where the money comes from.” We began bird-dogging state legislators by asking, “Will you commit to funding PEIA [Public Employees Insurance Agency] by raising the corporate net income tax?” We held banners that read “Public Employee Healthcare — NOT Corporate Welfare.”

In a critical January meeting, we asked Senator Richard Ojeda to introduce legislation raising progressive taxes to fund PEIA. He agreed. Seeing the growth and popularity of our movement (while at the same time running for Congress), he quickly became an outspoken advocate for raising the gas severance tax. By the time the strike began, chants of “Tax our gas!” filled the capitol.

Although the gas severance tax became a rallying cry, the strike ended without lawmakers passing progressive taxes — and without a permanent solution to PEIA. A highlight of Red State Revolt is its honest assessment of the limitations of our militant minority when it came to advocating our most important demands. Blanc quotes Jay O’Neal: “Honestly, my main regret of the strike is that we didn’t have a strong statewide structure of like-minded educators, through which we could have formulated and won things like a clear set of demands, particularly around taxing the rich and corporations.”

For educators across the country hoping to draw lessons from West Virginia, perhaps the most dangerous misconception surrounding our strike is that school superintendents gave us their blessing to walk off the job. But as school bus driver Mary Wykle puts it in Red State Revolt, “Up until the very day the strike began, we had no idea that the superintendents would end up shutting the schools and paying us by treating the walkouts like snow days.” In reality, they didn’t have much of a choice.

By the time our union leadership called a strike authorization vote, the determination of teachers and school service personnel — bus drivers, cooks, custodians, teacher’s aides — had caught fire. One-day walkouts had already occurred in the southern counties, simultaneously sending a warning shot to lawmakers and showing the way forward for the rest of the state. Blanc writes of the vote:

Despite the state’s attempts to head off a work stoppage by making significant concessions — including freezing PEIA costs and repealing bills that introduced charters, undermined seniority, and eliminated automatic union dues deductions — the educator vote results showed overwhelming support for a strike on a statewide level. Roughly 80 percent of educators statewide voted “Yes” and the “Yes” votes were often almost unanimous in schools with a strong union presence.

Facing this reality, superintendents chose to “support” workers rather than attempt to run schools with no faculty.

The idea that superintendents gave us a win goes hand in hand with another widely reported, glaring error: that this was simply a teacher’s strike. Linda Vanuss, a cook at Ravenswood Middle School, tells Blanc of the invisibility of service personnel within the school system before the strike: “I love my job, but we really don’t feel like we are part of the school. For instance, they have faculty dinners that we’re not invited to and that they then ask us to do the dishes for.”

These workers were almost universally left out of the media narrative, but their active participation in the strike made it impossible for schools to remain open. On Wednesday, March 28, the infamous “cooling-off day” when our strike instead turned wildcat, we held an emergency union meeting for American Federation of Teachers (AFT), West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), and West Virginia School Service Personnel Association (WVSSPA) building reps. As we started to make plans for hard picket lines, the local president of WVSSPA stood up and calmed everyone: “There will not be school tomorrow. I am telling you — the buses will not run tomorrow!”

His words became a soothing refrain in the remaining days, when open schools and lost paychecks were always a possibility had teachers and school service personnel not stuck together in solidarity. Red State Revolt examines the deliberate overcoming of structural divisions between teachers and school service personnel that made our strike successful.

The strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona have spread like wildfire to other states. Our wins have sparked a renewed interest in the labor movement and have brought the strike weapon back to the table. Just as we in West Virginia studied past labor struggles, new rounds of workers will look for answers in our successes and failures.

With the rapid growth of DSA and the word “socialism” permeating the public sphere, organized socialists would do well to take seriously the outsized impact a small group of radicals can have in their workplace. As organizers deliberate over strategy and socialists consider how to engage with labor, there are plenty of wrong takeaways to be gleaned from mainstream, superficial accounts. For educators, labor organizers, and radicals serious about extracting the key lessons of these wins, there is no analysis more comprehensive and incisive than Red State Revolt.