DELBARTON, W.Va. – The coal miner’s son had studied his county’s rough-and-tumble labor history, written his dissertation on it, taught his high school students about it.
Now Eric Starr, who knew history never repeats itself, felt history doing just that. And he was part of it.
Standing at a secret meeting like those held by striking miners a century ago, dressed in black except for a red bandana like the ones those miners wore, he exhorted his fellow public school teachers to defy the governor and their own unions and stay out on strike.
“I’m not going back,’’ he said. “We’ve been sold out!’’
That was last winter. Mingo County teachers – with no legal right to strike, no encouragement from their union and little prospect of victory – became the first in West Virginia to vote to walk out over their health plan and their pay.
The one-day walkout spread.
On Feb. 22, 2018, teachers across West Virginia went on strike, sparking a movement that spread to other red states, including Oklahoma and Arizona, and then, this year, to Los Angeles and Denver. On Thursday, teachers plan to strike in Oakland, California.
But the 2018 West Virginia teacher strike, which changed so much nationally, didn’t change that much back where it started. And on Tuesday, West Virginia teachers again staged a walkout – just to maintain the status quo.
Starr sees the irony.
“I love seeing what’s going on elsewhere,’’ he says. He’s 28, in his fourth year of teaching. “But West Virginia can be a slow place to change.’’
When the 2018 West Virginia strike ended March 7, it seemed like a great victory for public school teachers, who for years had been blamed widely for the failures of American schools, and for West Virginia schools in particular.
But history, even when it repeats itself, isn’t that simple. The 2018 strike’s legacy is still in doubt.
- The state’s promise of a dedicated funding source for public employees’ health insurance – the main issue in the strike – remains unfulfilled.
- Despite a 5 percent raise, teacher pay remains far behind neighboring states’, a disparity that explains why the year began with 700 classroom vacancies, or 4 percent of the state teacher force.
- The settlement did not increase the number of school specialists, like counselors and nurses, to help students from families scarred by the state’s opioid epidemic.
- The teachers’ vow during the strike to “remember in November’’ produced only mixed results. Republicans, most of whom opposed teacher demands, kept control of both houses in the Legislature. This year they revived proposals that helped prompt the 2018 strike. Teachers and service personnel went on strike again.
The walkout on Tuesday closed schools in nearly every West Virginia county, and lawmakers sidelined the education legislation teachers were protesting. That’s a victory for teachers.
But, teachers say, they are still waiting for the kinds of policies that would show them respect. Suspicious of the state’s GOP leaders, teachers are striking again Wednesday, to ensure lawmakers don’t revive the bill in question. Nearly all schools are closed.
Teachers in America: No matter where they work, they feel disrespect
‘Any talks of striking’?
If last year’s strike wasn’t revolutionary, it was remarkable.
At a time when organized labor seems in terminal decline, a national public school teachers’ movement emerged from the coalfields of southern West Virginia, one of the most isolated and conservative corners of America.
At a time when political partisanship is peaking – and despite the Democratic slant of teachers’ unions – the strike united Clinton and Trump voters. It was a political unicorn: a “liberal” cause advocated by conservatives.
But it was no anomaly. Children here are raised on stories of battles between miners and mine companies in what came to be known as “Bloody Mingo.’’ Many of the teachers who walked out were first on picket lines when they were in diapers.
Yet these old passions might not have been revived without a weapon the miners never enjoyed – social media.
On Jan. 6, 2018, a teacher posted an innocent query on a Facebook page: “Just curious if there are any talks of striking.’’
Soon, there was talk of little else.
Poll: Even when teachers strike, Americans give them high grades. Unions fare worse.
Welcome to the Mountain State
Jay O’Neal is a middle school social studies teacher who moved to West Virginia in 2015. After his first year, he realized that because of increasing health insurance costs, he’d take home $450 less than the previous year.
Teachers across the nation lost ground economically during and after the Great Recession, as states slashed education spending. West Virginia, whose signature coal industry has collapsed, ranked 48th in teacher pay before the strike, according to the National Education Association.
Yet teaching in West Virginia has gotten harder as students have gotten needier, partly because of the opioid crisis. Many are in a household with neither biological parent, and teachers sometimes must find ways to keep kids fed over the weekend, or get their electricity turned back on. One of O’Neal’s students found his father with a needle sticking out of his arm, dead of an overdose.
O’Neal wasn’t born into West Virginia’s “strike culture.’’ But in October 2017 he started a Facebook group page to unite members of the state’s two main teacher unions, the West Virginia Education Association and the rival West Virginia Federation of Teachers.
His timing was propitious. The state’s public employee health insurance agency had announced a new round of cost-saving measures. One based premiums for family coverage on the household’s total income, rather than just the teacher’s. Another was a wellness program that would effectively penalize those who didn’t do things like provide personal biometric data, go to the gym or wear an activity tracker like a Fitbit.
The program was anathema to famously independent-minded West Virginians. What business is it of some bean-counter what my spouse makes? Or what I weigh?
O’Neal heard plenty of grumbling in the teachers’ lounge, but little or nothing in public or on Facebook. His teachers’ page had only about 1,000 members. “I don’t get it,’’ he told a friend. “Nothing’s happening.’’
It was as if “strike” was a dirty word. “Everyone was thinking about it,’’ recalls Eric Starr. “Then someone worked up the guts to say it.’’
That someone was Rachel Kittle, a 32-year-old special education teacher from – no surprise – the coalfields. She didn’t feel gutsy, however. Striking was just what she and her colleagues were already talking about.
Shortly after her Jan. 6 post – “any talks of striking?’’ – O’Neal got a message from a friend: “Have you looked at Facebook?’’
TEACHERS’ VICTORY: Showed ‘power of women’
There was Kittle’s query, followed by an explosion of comments. The first was dismissive: “The unions are terrified and the teachers are unwilling.’’ But there were other voices:
- “Not all teachers.’’
- “There will not be an end to the cuts until a line is drawn.’’
- “As long as you take it without protesting, they will keep giving it to you.’’
- “Teachers went on strike in 1990. How did that get organized?’’
Soon, O’Neal couldn’t keep up with requests to join the group.
Strike fever spiked after Gov. Jim Justice, who’d been elected as a Democrat with union support before becoming a Republican to back Trump, proposed a mere 1 percent raise in his State of the State address.
Dale Lee, president of the WVEA union, felt compelled to address the topic at a rally on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Teachers expecting a call to the barricades were disappointed.
“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about, “It’s time for a walkout; it’s time for a strike,’ ” Lee said. “It’s not the first step in what we should do to achieve our goals.’’
But this was a battle in which union leaders would be followers.
It started in the coalfields
On Jan. 23, Mingo County teachers became the first in the state to decide to skip school for a day to go to the state capital to protest. They called it “Fed Up Friday.’’ Several other southern coalfield counties quickly followed suit.
Without a right to strike or bargain collectively, the teacher unions had become more practiced at lobbying the state officials who set their members’ compensation than at confronting them. Now, they struggled to catch up with the rank and file. A WVFT official told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that the union didn’t know how many counties had decided to walk out, but was sending staffers to county meetings “to find out what’s going on.’’
On Fed Up Friday, teachers from the coalfields gathered in the capitol rotunda in Charleston to protest. As they chanted, colleagues around the state watched.
A month later, on Feb. 22, after another one-day walkout and a statewide strike authorization vote, 20,000 teachers went out.
Timeline: How the 2018 West Virginia teacher strike evolved
School was closed in all 55 counties. Superintendents, already facing a teacher shortage, didn’t have nearly enough subs to hold classes. The teachers would never lose a day’s pay.
Public opinion seemed with the teachers. When the attorney general said the strike was illegal and offered to go to court on behalf of county school boards, he got no takers.
Five days into the strike, the governor and the union leaders, who’d been negotiating, announced a settlement, including a 5 percent raise. They told teachers to go back to work two days later, on March 1.
But the Senate’s Republican leaders had not signed off; the rank and file had not been consulted; and the governor, some teachers pointed out, was a coal-company owner. “We weren’t gonna fall for his word,’’ Kittle recalls. Teachers outside the capitol chanted: “Back to the table!’’ and “We got sold out!’’
At county meetings like the one in Mingo where Eric Starr spoke up, the rank and file agreed. They weren’t going back – they were going wildcat.
The strikes spread
Meanwhile, in Arizona, a teacher named Noah Karvelis had started a Facebook page like the one in West Virginia. Most of his colleagues supported a strike in their state, he tweeted, “especially with … WV’s success.’’
He created a Facebook event that called on Arizona teachers to wear red: “West Virginia is showing the entire nation what happens when teachers stand in solidarity.’’
Finally, West Virginia’s Republican Senate agreed to a 5 percent raise for all state employees. And the governor promised to freeze health insurance premiums for 18 months; to create a task force to find a dedicated source of health insurance funding; and to waive higher costs for workers who didn’t comply with the wellness plan.
On March 7, after nine canceled school days, the teachers went back to class.
But teachers in other states started to walk out. On April 2, Oklahoma and some counties in Kentucky; April 26, Arizona; April 27, Colorado. On May 16, North Carolina teachers staged a one-day walkout and rally.
A glass half empty?
A year later, it’s easy to emphasize what the West Virginia teacher strike didn’t do.
The raise, which averaged about $2,000 per teacher, was hardly life-changing. It let teachers pay off some bills or pay down some loans, or maybe buy a car. But their colleagues continue to flee to higher-paying districts in other states. Mingo High School, for instance, has been trying since May to replace its choir director, who left for a similar job in Ohio that paid $10,000 more. No one has even applied for the vacancy.
As for health insurance, the governor has proposed $150 million in the state budget to stabilize employees’ costs. But there still has been no agreement on how to insulate such funding from the yearly budget process.
The strike’s political legacy is also unclear. Some fault teachers for not mobilizing enough relatives and friends to vote; some say teachers themselves didn’t turn out in enough numbers, reviving memories of the pre-strike complacency that frustrated activists like O’Neal.
Whatever its cause, the teachers’ failure in November to elect more supporters in the Legislature came back to haunt them this year.
The broad education bill that prompted Tuesday’s walkout would have given teachers another 5 percent raise, but also allowed the state to establish its first charter schools. It would have let parents take taxpayer money for their child’s education in public school and spend it on options such as private school. Those were the sorts of issues behind the 2018 strike.
To kill legislation that hadn’t even been passed, teachers had to strike again. They won a victory in ensuring their situation didn’t get worse. But it also didn’t get better.
The old-time miners went on strike against mine owners. Today, public teachers ultimately strike against taxpayers, personal or commercial. Taxpayers are voters, and voters say they’re for higher teacher salaries. They also say they’re against higher taxes.
Talk of the nation
In one way, the strike didn’t so much revive history as reverse it.
With the fall of coal, a region once famed for sometimes-cussed independence became synonymous instead with a fatalistic acceptance of the status quo and a dependence on welfare, from food stamps to disability pay.
The strike, however, put West Virginia suddenly in the vanguard of the middle working class.
No one personifies that reversal more than Robin Ellis, a Mingo High English teacher who is also a grandmother, a social conservative, a Republican and one of the 69 percent of West Virginians (and 83 percent of Mingo residents) who voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
She’s also the daughter of an 83-year-old retired union miner who went on strike several times.
During last year’s strike, Ellis stood on her town’s main street to flag down motorists and, as traffic backed up, make the teachers’ case. And, like young Eric Starr, she rose at a meeting after the tentative settlement to urge her colleagues to stay out.
She says the strike was about more than money or respect. It was about an obligation to the generations past. “The word ‘strike’ prompts something in us here,’’ she says.
“I don’t think my daddy has ever been prouder of me.’’