Analysis: The Mountain State’s Labor Tradition
West Virginia’s long history of labor confrontations means residents know a thing or two about the picket line. Mountain State teachers drew on this tradition when they walked out of the classroom earlier this month.
The West Virginia teachers’ strike ended on March 6 in its second week. What began as a wildcat strike was sparked by a handful of fed-up teachers, supported by school service personnel, and catalyzed by a few populist politicians. This strike was not a piece of traditional labor organizing, nor a product of typical liberal activism. The strike reflects a brand of grassroots political action that is particularly West Virginian.
In this strike, unions followed their base. This strike lasted long past what many expected, and past what the leaders of the teachers unions — AFT West Virginia and West Virginia Education Association — might have wanted, after the rank and file rejected terms of a negotiation last week. Unlike a more “traditional” labor narrative, unions only announced the strike after the teachers had already walked out.
Teachers were clear that they were striking because the pay and conditions of poverty had become untenable. And, as several striking teachers articulated at a rally in front of the state capitol, teachers went out on strike — and won — not simply because of the desperate conditions they faced and the situation with PEIA, but because striking in West Virginia is cultural. As they explained, most people have a family member that went out on strike at some point, which means many people respect a picket line.
While some may find the Mountain State’s labor history at odds with the conservative nature of West Virginia politics today, West Virginians have a long legacy of mobilizing and taking bold action — and also of being backed into corners. With record levels of poverty, the state has more than a century’s history of extractive relationships to wealthy interests in the United States.
While West Virginians voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump, and the state has become a Republican stronghold over the course of the last five years, this has not always been the story of West Virginia’s politics. Local activists argue that after first glance, the social forces at play may not resemble those of typical conservative bastions.
For example, Richard Ojeda, freshman state senator and champion of the strike, and now running as a Democrat for U.S. Congress, voted for Trump and thinks Trump inspired West Virginians because he presented something different. In a place with seemingly unending poverty and crisis, taking a risk might seem better than the status quo.
A look at the rebellious past of labor organizing in Appalachia illustrates how this historic teachers’ strike came about. And, as organizers point out, the state’s labor history could be key to creating a different future for West Virginia.
The teachers’ strike is the most recent in a long history of grassroots, even militant, strikes in West Virginia history. Paramount in all of the state’s strikes have been coal miners.
The rank and file membership of the United Mine Workers of America was, and is, a force in West Virginia politics: “We were a rowdy bunch, and it wasn’t because of union leadership… Cecil never stuck around when things got tough.” Ray Burgess, a retired UMWA miner said in an interview in his home, in Eunice, WV. He was referring to Cecil Roberts, District Officer for the UMWA in the southern coalfields of West Virginia during the bloody Massey strike of 1985, now president of the UMWA.
The New York Times called the Massey strike a “coal war,” “one in which the levels of hostility and violence are reminiscent of union-management battles early in this century” (June 9th, 1985). The Times was referring to the bloody strikes of the 1910s and ‘20s, culminating in 10,000 miners taking up arms at the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921.
While it was not the last coal strike in memory by a long shot, the Massey strike marked the beginning of an end. Burgess explained Massey’s interests: “Their strategy to was do everything differently, to get past the union.”
During the 10 months of that strike, UMWA miners believed everything was at stake and that they had few options.
“The bosses would stick around to give a speech or two. But the boys would pass around a few bottles,” said one retired miner who preferred to remain anonymous. “I remember that night up at Elk Run. The [UMWA] cars took off, and we took off across that bridge. We smashed that guard shack, broke up everything we could find, and we torched the place.” Burgess, remembered: “Everybody had guns.”
It was a bloody strike. On May 29, Hayes West, a striking miner in Kentucky, was shot and killed.
But it was the era of President Ronald Reagan, and the stage was set against the unions, from the breaking of the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike to appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. Those national politics set the stage for the UMWA to lose big.
Massey hired armed guards, housed strikebreakers in secure, on-premise barracks, and started videotaping the strikes. Many were arrested. The union was forced to settle for a contract directly with Massey and suffered millions of dollars in fines. Ultimately, the UMWA would lose decisively in the Pittston strike in southwestern Virginia, in 1990, regaining health benefits for workers but suffering $64 million in fines, forcing leadership to change their strategy and marking a close to a chapter of militant strikes.
West Virginia Teachers Strike
But the end of militant coal strikes did not put an end to the fact that West Virginians and Appalachians as a whole are often faced with few choices in the face of dire poverty. Kim Jones, a teacher at Southside Elementary in Cabell County, W.V., says the conditions for teachers leading up to the walkout were: “just subsistence, if that. We’ve just been going so long without a sustainable raise. We’ve just been living in subsistence for so long. It just kinda built up.”
This strike came from teachers backed into a corner, said Erin Bush of Sudden Elementary School in Braxton County. “… [I]nitially it was our [insurance] premiums going up, and I already was working a second job to pay for things…. I was already working hard to stay above water, and then it started looking like we were gonna drown.”
Other teachers saw their actions in this strike coming out of a series of mounting crises in the state, from the 2014 chemical spill to the opioid epidemic. For many of the teachers, striking seemed less about union politics and more about running out of options — maybe not unlike the circumstances that led to West Virginians’ overwhelming election of Trump.
Ojeda — a maverick representing the southern coalfields and an Army paratrooper who denounces lobbyists in the state house as vehemently as he advocates for teachers — is a leading Democratic candidate for West Virginia’s 3rd U.S. congressional district. In a bold speech on the floor of the state Senate last month, he called on energy companies to pay more for teachers’ health care, warning of an impending strike if conditions did not improve.
Ojeda, the grandson of an undocumented Mexican immigrant and UMWA organizer, became a leading political figure in the strike. He also regrets his decision to vote for Trump. But, “Trump, he got everyone excited because he said shit nobody else has ever said,” he told a Politico reporter earlier this month. He says West Virginians need things to change, which is why he says a 2017 RealClear Politics poll (among several) showed that West Virginians might have elected Bernie Sanders with a four-point lead to Trump.
This teachers’ strike is just another instance where the reaction to a long history of poverty is to say: “enough.” Across the state, most have some memory, familial or personal, of the UMWA’s coal strikes or other picket lines, and that labor legacy is far from forgotten.
Gabe Schwartzman is the Director of Life Quality Initiatives at Southern Mutual Help Association, and a contributing author for the Daily Yonder. He works on just economic development and transitions for rural communities.
This article is from the Daily Yonder’s publishing partner 100 Days in Appalachia.