How West Virginia teachers defied the state—and their unions

Michael M describes his experience helping organize the West Virginia teacher strikes in 2018 and 2019, as a member of the West Virginia United caucus, and the IWW.

I’ve always been a radical, even before I had a red card. Joining the IWW in early 2017 was more a culmination of years of imbibing leftist political theory and history than it was a first step into the world of militant unionism. During the 2018 West Virginia teachers’ strike, however, I found out how deep my politics ran.

When I began teaching in 2016, the building representative (“shop steward” in other workplaces), where I taught was also, by coincidence, the local West Virginia Education Association president. A veteran educator and unionist, Dan had been a lifelong WVEA member and participant in the 1990 statewide teacher strike. He had signed me up for WVEA when I first started teaching, since membership is not compulsory in West Virginia. Dan had informed me about the annual statewide Delegate Assembly for WVEA members, and when our local began voting for members to attend DA, it was Dan who had vouched for me. At DA, it was Dan who introduced me to WVEA’s leadership team, and when I talked with Dan about becoming our building representative, it was Dan who gave me every piece of advice or material I would ever need to continue in his footsteps.

What my relationship with Dan and those more veteran unionists taught me more than anything else that year, however, was how isolated leadership was from member concerns. Dan was an active local president and building representative. He was known for dragging out faculty senate meetings with WVEA updates. Every month, Dan diligently placed a brightly-colored union memo in each of our faculty’s mailboxes, of which there were close to one hundred. Dan made it a habit to visit new faculty members early on, taking note of their interests and breaking the ice with his encyclopedic knowledge of films and popular culture. Dan was everything a good building representative and local president should be, according to WVEA. When there was an issue with administration, Dan was there to talk to about your concerns. When a member had a question about legislation, Dan was there to discuss it ad nauseum with you.

Unlike other local presidents, Dan cared about member concerns, and wanted to see those taken to the state level. But his years in WVEA had taught Dan that union leadership was immovable. Above him, members’ concerns fell on deaf ears. Requests for more local autonomy or assistance from the state level were not always heeded. Building power from below seemed impossible.

In 2017, Dan retired, and I took over as building representative.

Online organizing transforms labor organizing

Coincidentally, it was Dan’s desire to have more active members that led me to meet up with the Charleston organizers who would go on to start a nationwide revolution. Over the summer of 2017, Jay O’Neal, later the co-founder of the Public Employees United Facebook page that would be used to help organize education workers, messaged me to discuss some details about my anger at WVEA leadership. He had read my article in the Socialist Worker and had become ecstatic when he had realized he wasn’t alone. Jay felt a similar way about where leadership was heading, and that it would require a massive upheaval of membership to overhaul the system. Skeptical of this strategy though I was, I decided I would help out with organizing an upcoming rally.

What began as online organizing transformed labor organizing. On a lone Facebook page, education workers began agitating, educating, and organizing one another for bigger and bigger actions. Our page went from a dozen or so of us in October to over 20,000 within a few months. Through this page, we organized #RedForEd days where educators all wore red and took pictures together to post on the page; we discussed concerns about our insurance plan; and we strategized about how to target certain legislators.

The “West Virginia model” would be replicated in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona during 2018 alone. This year, similar actions taken up by organizers in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Denver have won impressive gains while building worker power post-strike. 2019 has also seen renewed actions in West Virginia and Kentucky.

Rank-and-file dissatisfaction with union leadership

In some of these cases, it was the conflict between the rank-and-file and the union leadership that exacerbated the situation, accelerating organizing efforts by members, oftentimes working in opposition to the desires of union bureaucracy. In West Virginia, leadership had been relying on the business union model of organizing for almost three decades, since the last statewide strike in 1990.

The business union model of education relies on three main tactics: contract negotiations, endorsements, and lobbying. Since West Virginia is a right-to-work state and bars public employees from collective bargaining, I’ll focus on the latter two and their relevance in our strikes. Both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and WVEA have political action committees that make endorsements for statewide and national seats. Those who sit on these committees at the local level can vary depending on the county, but at the state level, it’s almost always the old guard of union bureaucrats. These endorsements for candidates are the primary way that both unions signal to members where they should place their energy in campaigning for, or at least voting for, their endorsed candidates.

If election years go well, the expectation is that the elected representative listens to the union’s concerns and helps push for policy that the union requests. When election years don’t go as well, as happened in West Virginia in 2016, then the calls shift to lobbying of representatives. Historically, unions rely on paid or formal lobbying experts to push for these issues, but will occasionally offer members the chance to engage in this as well. Both AFT and WVEA would hold Lobby Days for union members to attend and meet with their representatives to discuss policy. WVEA had been pushed to call for a Lobby Day in 2017 because of the agitation on the secret Facebook page, but many members felt this tactic was a waste of time. As someone who attended the Lobby Day in 2017 and spoke with the Vice Chair of the state Education Committee Joe Statler, I can confirm this personally. Statler and other Republican members of the House of Delegates stonewalled union members and pushed back on calls for more worker control. “Well,” Statler told our delegation at the time, “We’ve done it your way for so long, and haven’t gotten any results, that I think it’s time we do things our [Republican] way.”

What 2017’s Lobby Day taught many of us was that this tactic was a dead fish. It wouldn’t provide us with the necessary gains we were demanding, to fix our insurance and increase public employee pay. It’s no coincidence, then, that at this Lobby Day, WVEA President Dale Lee stated that, “I’ve heard many members are calling for a strike.” This was the first time Lee and leadership had broached this subject. It was evident that members were angry at business unionism and wanted something more.

Yet, when members offered suggestions for local organizing, leadership at all levels would drag their feet, leaving good ideas to blow away in the wind. When members presented the unions with ideas to engage new members, a typical e-mail response was, “We’ll look into it.” Even the original walkout in 2018 was intended to be just two days, and only happened because union leadership felt they had to finally listen to members’ calls for direct action. The anger generated on the Facebook page forced leadership’s hand to extend it further for an additional seven days.

Four days into the strike, the union presidents stated that they had reached a tentative agreement with Governor Jim Justice to fund our insurance plan and give us our five percent pay raise. This was meant to be a good faith agreement, even though nothing in our legislature signaled that it would pass. The Senate President, Mitch Carmichael, had even said on a radio show that day that he didn’t believe a pay raise bill would make it through the State Senate.

Anger at this perceived betrayal by our leadership galvanized education workers across the state to demand that the walkout continue until legislation for the pay raise was passed. Workers used the Facebook page that we had set up, alongside their own countywide pages, to find locations where they could meet, discuss this proposal, and ultimately determine whether to return to work or not. When some counties decided to continue calling off, this galvanized the rest, who in turn forced their counties to close indefinitely until the pay raise bill was passed.

West Virginia education workers famously defied all three major unions – WVEA, AFT, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association (WVSSPA) – in this historic wildcat, leading to a major victory: protection of our state’s insurance plan in conjunction with a five percent raise. Clearly, the union membership was beginning to call the shots, cultivated on social media and in county meetings, and by the discontent with the business union tactics that members felt were ineffectual at accomplishing these larger gains.

Striking a second year in a row

This year, our fight was about protecting public education from charter schools and privatization efforts. The Senate Education Committee, run by a Tea Party organizer and homeschool advocate, Patricia Rucker, crafted a retaliatory bill early in this year’s legislative session. SB 451 would introduce unlimited charter schools and allow for educational savings accounts (ESAs) which are similar to vouchers. Both ESAs and charters essentially divert public funds from public schools to private schools or homeschooling, leaving public schools with fewer resources to hire and retain educators. When this happens, class sizes increase, repairs become scarcer, textbooks are expected to last significantly longer, and classroom technology falls behind.

This fight, from the beginning, was one that would either make or break our organizing. Rank-and-file organizers wanted to see this bill defeated through similar tactics that we had developed in last year’s walkouts. Yet, when the House of Delegates passed a watered down version of the Senate’s dreaded omnibus education bill, one that would limit charter growth and ESA’s, AFT-WV began signaling to its membership that this newest bill should be accepted as a reasonable compromise. AFT President Randi Weingarten had even tweeted that the newest bill should be accepted by membership. State AFT leadership soon began emailing members to avoid “third-hand social media sites” (a clear dig at the social media campaigns we had built last year) and instead listen to them.

Seeing the union’s acquiescence, when the bill returned to the Senate, Rucker’s allies amended it to include further privatization measures. This was too far. AFT was forced to join WVEA and WVSSPA in calling for an indefinite walkout in opposition to the legislature’s obstinacy.

In both 2018 and 2019, a militant majority of the membership had been activated and their anger redirected towards direct action. A long period where membership had stagnated and politicians could effectively squash union resistance was transformed in the span of only a few months.

Building a caucus

After 2018, well-known education organizers from across the country began looking to our cohort for bridge-building opportunities. This was our opportunity to create something bigger, bringing together organizers for something more concrete. We decided that the best course of action was to create a rank-and-file caucus within our unions, and so those of us who had been activated by the 2018 strike wave formed the West Virginia United caucus. This caucus brought AFT and WVEA members together for a common goal – strengthening the militant minority of members who felt they deserved to have a greater role to play in their union.

A note on how union membership is allocated: since affiliation is by member choice, members can be anywhere in the state. Some regions have higher percentages of one union over another – the Northern Panhandle has more WVEA members and the rural counties further south have more AFT members – but everywhere else, membership is more dependent on building representatives’ efficacy than anything else. Even though there could be buildings split 50-50 across affiliation, AFT and WVEA members rarely organized together. The 2018 walkouts were the first time that anyone could remember where AFT and WVEA worked across unions for a common goal. Those of us who had organized together wondered why this superficial line had been drawn and why it was maintained, seemingly only for the benefit of the union bureaucrats. So, one of our primary goals was to increase contact and capacity between membership and through this, break down the artificial lines separating members.

Our caucus rollout was aided by the attention attracted by the 2018 walkouts. Those of us who founded the caucus were invited to speak at the biennial Labor Notes conference, and through this, we developed a working relationship with our national affiliation, UCORE (United Caucuses of Rank and File Educators). UCORE is comprised of rank-and-file caucuses with similar goals from across the country. The caucus that took over the Chicago Teachers Union prior to their 2012 walkout, CORE, is affiliated with UCORE, as is the caucus Union Power that helped lead the UTLA strike this year. This affiliation provided us with access to resources, conferences, and strategizing opportunities to begin building power from the ground up in ways that WVEA and AFT-WV had never allowed.

The biggest challenge that our caucus faced early on was that our state had gone from a massive statewide walkout into building mass power, rather than the other way around. In Chicago, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) that had worked diligently for years prior to the 2012 Chicago teacher strike, building power in schools and showing the strength of the caucus in action, before presenting members with the ask of engaging in a lengthy strike. We had helped push our unions into accepting calls for a statewide walkout with little more than a Facebook page and angry members. Basically, they were pissed off union members who wanted to see something done, but there was no one, or no group, leading the charge. Local coordination of the walkouts was left to building representatives or, when not possible, the most militant member in that school. Food drives for students were not always directly tied to AFT or WVEA, so no one group had any particular legitimacy to claim victory from the first strike for their ability to bring together all members.

Online organizing won resounding successes in four key states – West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona – by mobilizing disaffected union members quickly. That strategy alone, though, could not last a second year.

Organizing challenges

Diverting power from a predominately online organizing platform into one on the ground in schools presented challenges for us. Few members attended listening tours held by a new task force committed to finding a solution to our broken health insurance system. Membership at local meetings saw an initial boost but then dropped back to pre-strike levels. We had to begin finding members who were supportive of continuing this work but doing so with the discipline of an organizer, someone not caught up in the “sexy” side of organizing (striking), but who could go into their schools, make asks of members, and continue bringing more interested parties into the conversation.

Members who were upset at the current political situation but who also felt betrayed by their primary union affiliation were recruited for caucus work. The strategy was simple enough – find simple “asks” of members who were fired up about the activity from last year and repeat as needed. Red for Ed days were again common, but so too were in-school presentations on charter schools.

The “asks” of these new members grew post-election, when Patricia Rucker worked with Mitch Carmichael to craft the punitive bill SB 451, described above. In order to placate teachers into accepting this deal, the omnibus bill had included a five percent raise across the board – roughly $2,000 for teachers in new state spending. The plan was to trick educators into accepting this payout in exchange for opening the floodgates to private education corporations.

In the span of one month, the West Virginia United caucus managed to set up statewide walk-ins in twenty of fifty-five counties. A walk-in involves teachers holding signs and passing out literature in front of their schools roughly twenty minutes before the first bell rings. As buses roll in and parents drop off their kids, they see teachers standing together with handmade signs, making demands of the legislature. It helps bring in parents who might otherwise never know about some educational issues. It also builds solidarity: when the bell rings, all teachers walk in together, in unison, rather than separately from their cars as we would normally do. This helps normalize escalation tactics for teachers who are hesitant to strike.

Our caucus also used our social media platforms to push pro-public school infographics that attacked the dark money interests behind Rucker’s omnibus bill (i.e., the Koch Brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council), and we drew upon our national connections to create and share solidarity videos from well-known educators and striking teachers. In addition to this, the caucus managed to put out a “meeting in a box” that could help train organizers remotely to hold their own meetings in schools across the state, to teach community members what a charter school was and why it was dangerous to the state. This was picked up by education advocates who were not directly tied to public school work, such as Our Children Our Future and Families Leading Change, and soon, the connections our caucus built with advocacy groups grew.

Member anger holds leadership accountable

Our most recent statewide strike this year crystallizes the power of this movement. An otherwise sluggish if not outright hostile union leadership had sought to sit on its laurels from the previous year and not appear too hostile to the new legislature, for fear that such talk could endanger much-needed community support. In the interim between the two strikes, union leadership had stated that our energy should be put towards elections, and when that didn’t pan out as they had wanted, the goal was to work with the legislature, find friends in the House of Delegates, and lean on possible Republican allies to water down the omnibus bill mentioned above. As they pursued “wait and see” politics, we organized. The militants in our caucus had read the situation correctly, ratcheting up members yet again until finally a two-day walkout killed the dreaded omnibus bill package.

Those who had otherwise been disenchanted with union work but felt another walkout was unthinkable became amenable to the idea when they saw the crisis plain and simple. This was why, when a vote of authorization to call a strike went out in early February, support was at similar percentages as it was in 2018. Anger, betrayal, and fear helped bring together members for a second year to once again strike against harmful legislation. This time, however, it was done in defense of public education. Members found their voice in protecting the common good, and the discourse on teachers as inherently greedy, a common tactic used by the right-wing to discredit educator concerns, was countered.

My thoughts as a wobbly

Education is now a “hot shop”: a workplace where the majority of workers are agitated and ready for action. Only the “hot shop” is an entire state (e.g., West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma) or an entire city (e.g., Los Angeles, Oakland, Denver). Our goal should be to try to build active union members to engage in this type of mass direct action before state repression takes its toll, before teachers possibly lose support or grow weary of the fight, or before electoral politics divert this energy towards national political campaigns.

When determining the parameters of our caucus, we had long debates about whether we would emphasize direct action or lobbying as our primary set of tactics. Would we use our new strength to flex our muscles and endorse candidates for office in November, or would we resign ourselves to staying outside of electoral politics altogether (we officially formed in September 2018)? Because Wobblies do not see lobbying or elections as strategic tools for building worker power, this ideological background helped me to make the argument throughout these debates as to why we should emphasize direct action over lobbying, fundraising, campaigning, and electioneering. In hindsight, this was the right call. The caucus chose not to formally endorse any candidate in November, nor did we decide to engage in lobbying efforts.