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West Virginia Teachers are an inspiration for action in Massachusetts

March 16, 2018

As public-sector workers and union activists rallied to preserve labor rights across the state of Massachusetts on February 26, some looked to teachers in West Virginia for inspiration. Although it was once a strong pro-union state because of courageous organizing by coal miners, state employees have never had the right to collective bargaining. And in 2017, so-called "right to work" legislation eliminated "fair share" dues contributions in the private sector. West Virginia teachers don’t have union contracts and it is "unlawful" for them to strike according to the state attorney general.

Apparently more than 34,000 teachers in West Virginia didn't "get the memo" that they weren't supposed to band together and act collectively. On February 22, after years of stagnant wages and a slap in the face 2% raise for 2018 and 1% raises for the next two years, teachers in West Virginia stopped work shutting down every single school district in the state.

At first union leaders encouraged teachers to pursue a strategy of rolling strikes, targeting a few schools at a time. Given that teachers and other state employees in West Virginia lack basic labor rights and that a strike by teachers would be technically illegal, the caution by union leaders was understandable. However, rank and file teachers meeting in local union halls (and sometimes even in shopping centers) declared "55 Strong"– a rallying cry to stop work in all 55 school districts across the state. Teachers and other school employees from three different unions and many who are not part of any labor organization, shut down all the public schools in West Virginia.

[caption id="attachment_8192" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Teachers rallying at the West Virginia State Capitol. Teachers rallying at the West Virginia State Capitol.[/caption]

The Teachers strike lasted 9 days and included a constant presence of red clad strikers and supporters at the state capitol building in Charleston. (The capitol occupation was reminiscent of the Badger Revolution in Wisconsin, when public sector workers and allies occupied the capital in Madison after then Gov. Scott Walker pushed through right to work legislation. In West Virginia, striking teachers wore red, invoking the red bandanas of striking miners at Blair Mountain in 1921.) After 9 days the legislature relented, passing a 5% pay raise -- not only for teachers, but for all West Virginia state employees. Strikers also succeeded in stemming cuts to health insurance for state employees and got a commitment from the Governor to veto anti-union legislation.

Jonathan Dudley, a Head Start teacher and member of Local 888’s MOC Chapter is thinking about what we can learn from teachers in West Virginia. "I was really inspired by how West Virginia Teachers organized at the grassroots," he explained. "They built solidarity across the whole state, across different school districts, across unions that didn't even have contracts."

Dudley has begun attending meetings of the North Central Mass Solidarity Committee – which is organized by Jobs with Justice. "I met Natalia last fall when a co-worker and I agreed to gather signatures for Raise Up Massachusetts," continued Dudley. "She is from Leominster and thought maybe there was an opportunity to have a group in this part of the state where union members and community members could work together on economic justice issues." Natalia Berthet Garcia is an organizer with Mass Jobs with Justice, which has built similar solidarity committees in other parts of the state.

"Right now it is a small group, but I noticed there are several of us that work in school settings," says Dudley. "While we are often in different unions, I wonder if there might be some common issues we could work together on." Among other issues the Solidarity Committee is looking at building local support for the Fair Share Amendment, which would provide needed revenue for schools and public infrastructure. "Maybe we can learn from West Virginia," says Jonathan. "We don't have to limit ourselves to prescribed activities like grievances and contract fights. Maybe we can work together at a grassroots level and win something big for our schools and communities. While I'd never underestimate the power of committed union members from the coal field state of West Virginia, the teacher's strike there took me by complete surprise. I don't know, maybe we are a lot stronger than we think."

Dudley isn't the only one taking inspiration from West Virginia. In Oklahoma where short sighted tax policy has crippled public education, school weeks have been cut to four days. Teachers there have started to suggest that they should follow the lead of their colleagues in West Virginia.

If you live or work in North Central Massachusetts and would be interested in joining the Jobs with Justice Solidarity Committee contact Natalia at: