For the second time in eighteen months, West Virginia has become a bellwether for the nation according to many pundits. In the fall of 2016, reporters latched onto “Trump whisperer” J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, to explain why the once solidly Democratic state now led the country in voting for the Republican candidate. According to Vance, a toxic mix of defeatism, dependency, and dysfunction created a groundswell of support for candidates who promised to make America great again by allowing energy companies to have free reign in the state. West Virginia had become so Republican that its governor Jim Justice, elected in 2016 as a Democrat, switched parties just seven months later.
Fast forward to February 22, 2018 and the color red assumes an entirely different meaning. The state’s 22,000 teachers and school service personnel donned red t-shirts and bandanas in a symbolic nod toward West Virginia’s militant and radical labor history. Like the “redneck” miners after World War I who defied coal operators, local authorities and, for a time, the federal government in their demands for union recognition and full citizenship rights during the West Virginia coal wars, teachers walked off the job this month, forcing all 55 counties to close schools for eleven days, until teachers won a 5 percent raise and a 16-month moratorium on increases in their health premiums. Once again, reporters flocked to the state, hoping to capture the crest of a new wave.
Which West Virginia represents the reality? Minus Vance’s stagnant cultural determinism, both do, and there is the conundrum. Beneath the euphoria surrounding the incredible grass-roots solidarity of the teachers’ walkout, there are some vexing pitfalls. The state legislature, the governor, and all but one of West Virginia’s Congressional delegations are solidly in the Trump camp. Their economic philosophy is unlikely to fix the problems that brought teachers to picket lines — stagnant low wages, a dismal health insurance plan (PEIA) for public employees that demands rising premiums and higher deductibles, and unrealistic expectations that schools should shoulder the hardships that poverty inflicts on children. Few realize how much teachers do to ensure that their students have nutrition, clothing, and basic educational tools, often dipping into their own pockets to supply them. Will we also ask them to carry guns and put their lives on the line to protect their students?
But the state’s economic problems did not begin with the change from blue to red. The low-tax pro-corporate policies began under the gubernatorial administration of Joe Manchin (now US Senator). In 2006, West Virginia’s state revenue collections equaled about 7.4% of the state’s economic activity before Democrats reduced corporate net income taxes and eliminated some others. By 2016, revenue collections equaled only 6% of the state’s economic activity, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. Returning to even a 7% figure would give the state about $650 million more to spend on salaries (double the cost of teacher raises). Meanwhile, trickle-down tax reductions did not fix West Virginia’s economy. State jobs have shrunk and support for both schools and higher education has collapsed, despite the election of a new “education” governor, Jim Justice, in 2016. The billionaire Justice, by the way, owes the state an estimated $4.5 million in back taxes.
The failures of the Democrats opened the door for the Republican Party, which captured control of the legislature in 2014, ending more than 80 years of Democratic dominance that began when West Virginia had one of highest union densities in the country. Republican rule intensified budget slashing and added attacks on worker protections, including prevailing wages and workers’ compensation. West Virginia is also a right-to-work state as of 2016, although public employees have never enjoyed collective bargaining rights. The Republican leaders have steadfastly supported a business agenda, rejecting higher severance taxes on the most valuable resources in the state — coal and natural gas — despite higher rates in neighboring states.
Among the incongruities of the teacher strike, about which so many on the left are hopeful, is that it occurred in the most Trump-leaning state and that its solidarity included a significant percentage of teachers who are not members of either of the teacher unions (NEA and AFT). Rank-and-file activists built bridges beyond and across the unions, relying on social media and other connections to expand the clout of the unions that acted as the official voice of teachers lobbying the state legislature for pay increases. But the independence that helped teachers defy the state’s politicians — and their own union leaders when the AFT and NEA prepared to accept a hasty compromise — has not prevented many of them from buying corporate arguments about the need to create a pro-business climate and reduce government regulations. For decades, conservatives have promoted the message that big government hurts economic growth. As a result, many in a state dependent upon resource extraction see no alternative.
Perhaps most perplexing is that the state may use raises for teachers and public employees as an excuse to cut funds for other vital services, especially dollars targeted for battling the opioid crisis in the state. One of the more ironic aspects of the state’s budget problems and its political shift from blue to red is that West Virginia was an enormous beneficiary of the Affordable Care Act’s major Medicaid expansion. Between 2013 and 2016, ACA provided coverage for 150,000 West Virginians and funneled $700 million more into state coffers. Initially, Republicans in the legislature talked of cuts to Medicaid as a way to pay for the teachers’ raise. While that did not happen this year, the cruel idea of pitting underpaid state employees against the very poorest people in the state may yet be revived.
Still, there are good reasons for pro-labor people to get excited about what happened in West Virginia. The teachers overcame the internal divisions that wracked their last strike in 1990. Even more impressive was that the solidarity of the action came from rank-and-file teachers using social media. They demonstrated even greater bargaining guile than their leaders, who accepted a deal with the governor and told teachers to return to school even though the legislature had not approved the funds for the raise. Hastily-called meetings by teachers, not union leaders, averted a potential disaster and kept the action going. The walkout also generated widespread public support, including a mobilized student support group, Secure Our Future. Teachers understood public concerns and headed off criticism by working with food pantries and voluntarily delivering lunches for children dependent on subsidized school nutrition.
All of this transpired in what the media love to label “Trump Country,” and simultaneous to an expected Supreme Court ruling (the Janus case) that many have seen as a devastating blow to public employee unions. Have West Virginia’s teachers discovered the new strategy that will solve organized labor’s problems? Historians are not very good with crystal balls. I thought that unions were due to turn things around in the early 1990s in the wake of two inspiring events — the Pittston coal miners’ strike in 1989 to protect retiree health care and pensions and the United Steelworkers’ heroic battle against Marc Rich and Ravenswood Aluminum between 1990 and 1992. In both cases, West Virginia workers explored new strategies, conducted ambitious and defiant actions, and resurrected the fighting spirit of Mother Jones, the redneck army, and the militant solidarity of the Mine Wars. And yet, after those instances, that momentum disappeared.
Today, the teachers might be in the middle of something. You can see it in the inspiring struggle of students in Florida (and nationally) against gun violence, in the mobilization of immigrant communities, and in the election of the first openly transgender and the first Latina in the Virginia legislature. But there is much long, hard slogging ahead. Will the teachers aid the 1400 Frontier Communications workers whose strike began just a few days after their own? What will they do to revitalize politics in the state and discover a new generation of candidates (especially women, who make up only 15% of the state legislature)? What new strategies will they devise for West Virginia that will finally keep a fair share of profits from the state’s energy resources within its borders for dealing with its chronic poverty? If West Virginia teachers are truly going to be a part of a bellwether for the nation, they must begin to answer these questions.
Ken Fones-Wolf is the Stuart and Joyce Robbins professor and teaches labor and Appalachian history at West Virginia University.