George Binette

West Virginia Wildcat Bites Back

George Binette
West Virginia Wildcat Bites Back

WEST VIRGINIA IS ASSOCIATED with literally blood-stained battles before and after the First World War that ultimately secured unionisation of its once dominant coal industry.

In recent years West Virginia’s once militant unions have been in sharp decline with unemployment high and wages low. Nearly 18% of the state’s 1.9 million residents live below the official poverty line and, as elsewhere, West Virginia has witnessed years of tax cuts for big business and real terms spending cuts for public services, not least education.

Once a Democratic Party bastion, those who voted in the November 2016 presidential election backed Donald Trump by a two-to-one margin.

Emily Comer entered her third year of full-time teaching last September. South Charleston High School where she teaches Spanish has an enrolment of just over 950 pupils, half of whom come from impoverished households. The vast majority - two-thirds to three-quarters - are white. “When I walk into the classroom,” says Emily, “I am directly confronted by the reality of West Virginia’s failed economy: the opioid crisis, homelessness, kids experiencing trauma related to poverty.”

For Emily the recent strike that ultimately involved between 20,000 and 30,000 teachers and school service personnel such as bus drivers and cooks in school kitchens was “a symptom of the state being in crisis. It was a kind of wake-up call to do something for the whole state.”

Having started work at South Charleston last August, Emily had become increasingly active in the West Virginia chapter of her union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which was one of three involved in the unofficial walkout across all of the state’s 55 counties that began on 22nd February. She only became a local school representative less than a fortnight before the action began.

The twin drivers of mounting discontent among the state’s teachers and school support staff have been declining real pay and the rising cost of premiums under the state’s Public Employment Insurance Agency (PEIA), a programme that covers all public sector employees and their families. It is directly relevant to the lives of one in seven state residents. Teachers’ median salaries ranked 48th out of the 50 states with the state’s billionaire governor Jim Justice initially offering a 2% pay rise after years of stagnation.

While Emily’s salary of $39,354 (roughly £28,370) is significantly above the median for West Virginia workers, she currently has to pay $1,128 a year towards the PEIA scheme and is still liable to shell out the first $450 for any medical treatment. To her, “it’s not a bad policy compared to private insurance in the US, but it’s more expensive every year.” She must also pay substantial prescription charges due to a long-term condition and these have effectively doubled, but she adds, “many teachers around the state are in far worse shape than I am.”

Momentum had been building for months. The first “warning shot” was fired by teachers who walked out across three counties in the state’s south west, a former United Mine Workers’ stronghold, on 2nd February. Crucially this fight drew the support of the workers who drive school buses and prepare school meals. With their involvement schools across all 55 counties were shut from the outset.

Anger over PEIA premium rises outstripping headline inflation fuelled an unprecedented unity as members of the three unions involved played an active part in a strike that defied legislation - common in many US states - that bars public sector employees striking. Day after day strikers, sometimes in their thousands, besieged the state’s capital building, demanding both pay increases and action to address the PEIA crisis. Many also expressed support for legislation proposed by the populist Democratic senator, Richard Ojeda, which would impose a higher ‘severance’ tax on companies reaping rich rewards from the fracking of the state’s natural gas reserves.

The passage of Ojeda’s bill remains unlikely any time soon, but it stands in sharp contrast to years of corporate tax cuts worth hundreds of millions, approved by both Democratic and Republican legislators with the ostensible aim of revitalising the state’s anaemic economy.

Early on the evening of 27th February word spread of an apparent deal struck by governor Justice and the three key union leaders. Justice announced that teachers would receive a 5% award and there would be a taskforce established to consider PEIA’s future. Protesting education workers were present and reacted with irate incredulity.

The governor lacked the backing of the hard-line Republicans in the state senate necessary for ratification. Over the next few days Republican senate leader Mitch Carmichael and finance chair Craig Blair sought to undermine the supposed settlement, but ultimately after a further week of wildcat action the Republican senators caved in. They effectively agreed a 5% rise for all public employees to be implemented immediately for education staff and the state police force. Despite overt threats to cut social services and the state’s Medicaid programme for its poorest residents in order to pay for the increases, the state’s political leadership had run up the white flag.

Emily Comer is now back in the classroom, but there is clearly a campaign still to be waged about the fate of the PEIA programme and it remains to be seen whether events in West Virginia will boost the long-running campaign for a ‘single payer’ system of public health insurance across the US as a whole.

There cannot be an easy assumption that the West Virginia wildcat marks the revival of organised labour in the US at a time when public sector unions face the prospect of a major defeat at the hands of Supreme Court judges later this year. But the West Virginia strike has certainly fired both the anger and confidence of teachers in others states, generating serious talk of strike action in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and New Jersey.

In a state widely regarded as ‘Trumpland’ the West Virginia strike, which commanded substantial public support, seems remarkable, but as Emily Comer noted, “a lot of people who did vote for Trump went on strike. I don’t want to downplay the realities of racism and nationalism, but many people voted from a place of economic desperation and it’s worth remembering that Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary in all 55 counties.” 

Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP