West Virginia Walkouts a Lesson in the Power of a Crowd-Sourced Strike
Posted March 8, 2018 3:34 p.m. EST
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Heather DeLuca-Nestor, a county teachers’ association leader, was driving back to Morgantown, West Virginia, from the state capital on Feb. 28 hoping that she and other teachers were about to return to work. The governor had promised 5 percent pay raises to settle a statewide strike, and union leaders had agreed.
But as she made the winding drive, she said, her phone exploded with angry calls: “What are we doing?” ‘'We can’t go back to school.” “Our union sold us out!”
That evening, many of the 150 teachers who had gathered in a deserted shopping mall told her in impassioned terms that promises and handshakes in the Capitol were not good enough. No matter what union leaders said, they were staying out until they had what they wanted, and in writing.
DeLuca-Nestor, the president of the Monongalia County Education Association, walked away in tears to phone the county superintendent. “I had to ask him to turn around and call school off,” she said.
It was a crucial turning point, and a telling one. With no collective bargaining rights, no contract, and no legal right to strike, the teachers had managed to mount a statewide work stoppage anyway, and make their demands heard, marshal public support, and stick together until they won. And the rank and file, not union leaders, came to call the shots.
Experts say the West Virginia teachers may foreshadow the future of organized labor, especially in the public sector, at a time when its power has been eroded in much of the country by anti-union legislation and by court challenges like the Janus case, now before the Supreme Court, which threatens the financial viability of collective bargaining.
Public employees in other states have taken notice. Teachers in Oklahoma have been talking about mounting a West Virginia-style statewide walkout in early April if the Legislature does not raise their pay by then. In Kentucky, a pending bill to reduce pensions for retired teachers has prompted protests and talk of strikes.
“Unions have tended throughout most of their histories to be forces that seek stability, not unrest,” said Joseph A. McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University. “When they are weakened, we’re more likely to see the re-emergence of instability and militancy, and the kind of model that we’re seeing happen in West Virginia.”
That model, driven by grass-roots anger, can flummox politicians. Mitch Carmichael, the Republican president of the West Virginia Senate, opposes collective bargaining for public employees, but he acknowledged that the decentralized aspects of the strike made it difficult to reach a settlement that would satisfy the teachers.
“You’re not negotiating with a particular, a unique set of participants,” Carmichael said. “There’s just this organic sort of — I don’t know what to call it. More like an uprising.”
National union leaders said the situation in West Virginia revealed the pitfalls of government policies intended to hobble them.
“If the right wing gets what it wants and tries to eliminate collective bargaining in the public sector, then politics — this kind of political activism at the ballot box, in the statehouse — will be the only avenue,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers’ union.
The West Virginia teachers found ways to organize and act outside the usual parameters of traditional unionism. Teachers and service workers across the state aired their frustrations in an enormous Facebook group, and their walkout ultimately included members of three different unions and many people who did not belong to any union. When they defied union leaders’ calls to end the strike on March 1, the strikers redoubled the pressure on lawmakers to deliver on their pay raise.
The lesson, experts said, is that undermining public sector unions, as the Janus case seeks to do, will not guarantee labor peace.
“What it does show is that this Janus decision will force workers to look at other strategies,” said Ken Fones-Wolf, a professor of history at West Virginia University. “Without this institutional voice, it does make it harder to sort of organize this kind of thing. But when conditions do get bad enough, workers will take action without an organization.”
Indeed, some teachers who went to the meeting at the mall in Morgantown said their lack of collective bargaining rights left them no choice but to continue their strike. “It we can’t negotiate with the people that we’re supposed to negotiate with, then we’re really just sticking out our necks and saying, this is what we’re fighting for,” said Lindsay Smalls, a sixth-grade science teacher. “We’re just going to stick up for ourselves.”
Wildcat strikes led by rank-and-file workers are rare these days, but they recall the big miners’ strikes that racked West Virginia’s coal country in the early part of the 20th century. That pattern of labor activism changed with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, sometimes called the Wagner Act, giving most workers a federally protected right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.
The Wagner Act does not cover public employees, though, and some states, like West Virginia, do not give public employees the right to bargain collectively. For that reason, the state’s two teachers’ unions, the West Virginia Education Association and the state branch of the American Federation of Teachers, do not function as those in other states might, although they do lobby for teachers and help with grievances. Membership is voluntary and far from universal.
Even so, they were quick to respond as frustration built over rising health insurance costs and other issues earlier this year. It was the unions that started the long walkout by conducting a vote and calling for the statewide work stoppage, which began on Feb. 22.
“It started off with the membership following their state leaders,” said Gary Price, the superintendent of schools in Marion County, who, like his colleagues around the state, kept schools closed during the walkout. “But when the state leaders made a decision that the employees didn’t like, they took it in a different direction.”
At that point, the course of the strike was in the hands of teachers in each of the state’s 55 counties making their own separate decisions about what to do, though they monitored the mood elsewhere over social media. In Price’s county, teachers gathered for a heated meeting at a high school, where people stood up and cried out every time they heard that another county’s schools would be closed the next day.
“Once they started to all fall, we were going to fall in line with the rest of our state,” said Allyson Perry, president of the Marion County Education Association. “That’s been the theme of this the whole time.”
Earlier in the day, teachers and bus drivers from Boone County had huddled informally at the Capitol to make their decision. “None of our union reps were over there,” Robin Muncy, a bus driver, said afterward. “We just did it as a whole, because we felt we were being lied to.”
Will Lawrence, 53, a cook at an elementary school in Charleston who is not a member of any union, said, “We had to drag our leaders kicking and screaming — that’s why it seems so disorganized.”
And in Morgantown, it was Anna Simmons, 26, who called the meeting at the mall, intending to talk over the idea of defying the union leadership and staying out with some of her colleagues at the elementary school where she works as a counselor. She was stunned when so many teachers from other schools showed up.
“I think our reps realized change needed to happen,” Simmons said. “They ended up with a forest fire, and once it was lit, they didn’t know how to contain it.”
West Virginia’s strike is over now, but the problems and the activism that drove it are not. In Oklahoma on Wednesday, the state’s largest teachers’ union announced it was accelerating its timeline for a statewide walkout, catching up with the fast-moving plans of activist teachers who had already been organizing a work stoppage in protest of low pay — on average, the lowest in the nation.
“We have proven this was long overdue,” said Larry Cagle, an English teacher in Tulsa who has been one of the main grass-roots organizers of a walkout. “The union, they don’t know how to do this.”