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Mar 6, 18

Holler If You Hear Me: My Experience in West Virginia

The following personal reflection details one person’s trip to the state capitol in West Virginia as they interacted, talked with, and learned from, West Virginia public employees on strike.

Arriving to Charleston, West Virginia via 77W, winding and snaking along the Kanawha River, the first thing you notice is the Gold Domed Capitol Building shining in the distance above the surrounding buildings and houses. A gold leaf, gold domed shrine to corruption and party politics. A temple commanded by the god of cash, coal cash, now maybe natural gas and oil cash, but extraction, ecologically destructive cash fed to its capitalist puppets, all the same.

“This wildcat may have been a couple days old, but the solidarity and effort that I experienced was running months, if not generations, deep.”

I’d seen it before, I’ve been to Charleston many times driving from Southwestern Virginia through the Borderlands and battlefields of Mingo, Logan and Boone, to the center of the state where I had my first real job. I have a natural affinity and connection to this area. I’ve long understood how wild and wonderful West Virginia is, but I had no idea what to expect with regards to this statewide wildcat strike.

I didn’t even know how to show up. Do we bring a banner, a sign? Do I need to prepare to get arrested? The strike had been a wildcat for only two days before we arrived.  I’d been to so many different types of public events recently. Events where I’m chasing neo-Nazis down city streets, yelling at cops, scouting out snipers. This was different. This was a strike of teachers and librarians and bus drivers that had come from every county, hilltop, and home in “West Virginia.” I was never more a tourist in this moment than had I been in a foreign country, except I was only 2.5 hours away from home and just across the state line.

One of my fellow workers suggested that we just talk with folks, survey them on some basic questions and put together worker stories to bring back with us. Stories we could use in our local newsletter that might just highlight the strength of solidarity and struggle and how we can exact even the most meager of demands from an absent and unrelenting ruling class.  We weren’t locals, our jobs were not on the line for being there. This struggle is and has been their struggle for years. According to some of the womxn I talked to, it was the same fight they fought 30 years ago against what was then a Democratic ruling party. This wildcat may have been a couple days old, but the solidarity and effort that I experienced was running months, if not generations, deep.

Over all we were able to talk with around 15-20 folks throughout the day. In groups of 2-5, and from possibly 7 or so counties. Boone, Marion, Wetzler, Jefferson, Greenbrier, and Putnam, to name the ones I can remember. I engaged everyone I could, at every opportunity. Usually by having folks show me where they were from by making a pistol shape with my left hand by extending my pointer finger (West Virginia can easily be mimicked with a closed fist and an outstretched forefinger or middle finger, depending on who you’re talking to). All of the people I talked to identified as womxn, except for a retired worker from Laborers International Union, and a younger teacher from Boone County and some members of Socialist Equality Party.

One thing I am certain of, and this is what I have found with my lived experience throughout the greater South and Central Appalachia is that there exists a localism that isn’t so welcoming of ‘outside agitators,’ no matter what message you may bring. While recognizing that all of the US is occupied indigenous lands, the people of West Virginia and Appalachia have always existed on a fringe, as an internal colony of the so-called “United States.” They have a history of not only exploitation, but of struggle against their out of touch rulers that have existed solely on the wealth of their life’s labor.

“West Virginia” comprises one of the richest natural areas in the nation, serving as a hub for coal, oil, and gas extraction not only for “US” markets, but also foreign countries like China, which under the current Trump/Pence Regime are making massive deals to export ecocide to the heart of this state. Arguably the long-term use of the people and land is equitable to the type of capitalist extraction that one would expect to find at the edges of the Amerikkkan Empire, and not at its center. So while SEP was busy livestreaming, proselytizing, and debating about theory in a sea of swarming praxis, I attempted to have the striking teachers teach me about their struggle.

The questions that I asked of most of the people I spoke with were roughly along the lines:

  • How the strike was mobilized
  • What were their impression regarding local community level support
  • What type of push back existed from naysayers, especially with parents and students
  • Did their local community participate in mutual aid projects ahead of the strike in order to feed kids
  • What was their association to other unions, especially coal unions that had committed strikes in the past
  • If they were present at the strike in 1990 or had they ever participated in a strike before
  • What exactly were their demands
  • Would they continue if these demands weren’t met by the legislature
  • If they felt the Senate’s denial of their demands and dismissiveness was rooted in Patriarchy
  • What they thought of being criminalized due to an injunction
  • What their ideas were regarding the resource extraction of coal, gas, and oil, and the demand to tax oil and gas to fund PEIA (West Virginia Public Employee Insurance Agency)

The conversations I had with folks where based on mutual respect, and a desire to learn from the experiences of these amazing workers. Unfortunately because we weren’t exactly sure of just how rich the information we were getting would be it wasn’t transcribed verbatim. Therefore I can only synthesize and highlight what these teacher’s taught me on Friday.

To begin, the current incantation of this strike, was no accident. Overwhelmingly everyone I talked to said that the attempt by Governor Justice to declare the strike settled with a 5% raise, only for teachers was a sham aimed at undercutting the massive momentum that was swelling up behind them from across the state and world. These teachers see themselves as the representative body of the entire public employee working class in West Virginia. From the natural resource folks to the toll operators, and yes, unfortunately, even the state troopers, (who have been relieved of responsibility for injury or murder on the capitol grounds by the “West Virginia” legislature).

The workers recognize the unique privilege they have as school employees who are basically using built up “snow days” as cover for their strike. This allows them to remain in the capitol and on the picket lines without technically missing work or having an injunction levied. Some folks attributed the initial mass mobilization to the bureaucratic efforts of the unions: West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) and American Federation of Teacher – WV (AFT), and to the early leadership of the rank-n-file in the southern counties, which have a long history of miner struggles. One lady went as far as to say that they wouldn’t have been able to amass on that level and mobilize without those initial efforts, but that once things were in swing, and especially after Governor and tax evader Jim Justice tried to declare the strike over, that the actions had taken on autonomous momentum that they feel will not end until their demands are met.

There was a direct avoidance of talking about their potential criminalization, and that question was often directed into highlighting the support from their superintendents. Across the various social media accounts supporting and linking the strikers, praise for superintendents seems to be common. This stands even for the counties that were earlier reported as having superintendents that were willing to file an injunction, and though I hate bosses of any type, when I explored this relationship more, it seemed that the solidarity that was present between teachers and superintendents was the result of their shared background as educators, often hired from the local communities they served by the democratically elected local school boards. Given that the locals were making decisions every day (regardless of party affiliation or union membership), communicating their demands to their WVEA/AFT delegates, who then took the combined statement of actions of the school councils in the county to their respective superintendent, a relatively bare-bones structure of accountability based on direct democracy appears to be in play and responsible for maintaining the solidarity found at the higher levels of the existing hierarchy.

That being said, local communities are organizing outside of the standard union structure, and non-card holding members are voting alongside card carrying members. Churches, small businesses, community centers, education destinations like caves and museums, are all providing some form of mutual aid in child care for parents and teachers. The importance of the mutual aid behind childcare, food, and healthcare cannot be understated. These are the main points of contention that legislative leadership is attempting to drive as a wedge between parents, and strikers. If the strike is to continue, then these communities will need to create long term solutions for these problems, and also communicate that any extended school years, are not the result of direct action, but a small price to pay the mutual community confrontation with the ruling class.

“local communities are organizing outside of the standard union structure, and non-card holding members are voting alongside card carrying members. Churches, small businesses, community centers, education destinations like caves and museums, are all providing some form of mutual aid in child care for parents and teachers.”

Their demands are simple. The 5% pay raise, promised by Justice, and put forward by their House is definitely something they all deserve, but make no mistake, that is not their main demand, and one that is beyond a meager request. Speaking with a Boone Teacher, I learned that they had been told that with another impending pay decrease coming in the next year, that they would be making roughly $29,000 with 10 years of teaching experience. This 5% equates to only $120 more per month, and only translate to even less for less tenured teachers or school wage employees. Many of these teachers receive social welfare subsidies and have taken on multiple jobs to make ends meet; yet pay is nt the focus of their demands. Their main demands are focused on PEIA. They want a freeze on premium increases for all public employees, and funding to come from the taxation of fossil fuel extraction in the oil and natural gas sectors, or perhaps even recreational cannabis.

Just like many other workers struggling to meet the basic demands of health care in an ever increasingly poisoned world, one educator told me that they were paying $1,500 in insurance premiums a month, and that they actually considered themselves lucky to pay that compared to other folks with larger families. Speaking with an undergraduate college student, studying to be a teacher and whose aunt was a striking teacher, there is a real sense that not only is coal and gas an export of West Virginia, but teachers are too, as they flee the state to better paying jobs and healthcare in surrounding states. That there is no future for educators in West Virginia if these issues aren’t dealt with, should be enough to squeeze these legislative aristocrats of the basic necessities of life, but it appears that, with the discussion hung up between 4% and 5% raises and total ambiguity on PEIA, that their priority remains the exportation of resources, families and culture for the sake of profits. Only further undermining the unique social fabric of their individual state and greater Appalachia.

“There are teachers on the picket line that are the first people in their familial history to strike. There are others that were there in the 90’s, and others whose fathers were striking miners in the 70’s.”

There are teachers on the picket line that are the first people in their familial history to strike. There are others that were there in the 90’s, and others whose fathers were striking miners in the 70’s. West Virginian’s are distinctly aware of their heritage in militant working class struggle and the workers I spoke with see themselves within that direct line regardless of their age/generation. This is an opportunity for these teachers to educate their students on the power of solidarity and mass action and it is not lost on any of them. During my conversations with the workers, it was brought to my attention that there was an underlying sense of patriarchal disregard coming from the legislature given that education is a predominately femme profession. However, I didn’t feel that I could fully explore that current given my identity, but it is important to me to recognize the immense power and action that is attacking Patriarchy everywhere. From the Womxn’s Revolution in Rojava, to the hilltops of West Virginia, from radical femmes and marginalized gendered folks fighting daily in the streets, there is a mass movement occurring that can liberate us all, and I am so thankful to even be able to follow and learn from such amazing leaders in all areas of the social struggle.

One womxn, teary eyed told me that the mass rally that occurred last week, with all the teachers, school workers, and labor/unions present, interlocking arms in a sea of bodies stretching from atop the capitol steps all the way to the Kenawha river ledge, was the best moment of the strike thus far, and it is ever evident why the workers are there. Why there is outrage. We should all be outraged. In the shadow of Blair Mountain and Matewan, I was told about coal companies once again bank rolling schools, providing basic necessities to such as paper and gas money for activity buses.

I just want to say to anyone, anywhere, reading this, anyone who dreams of liberation from the capitalist class, yet unable to find those perfect moments in life, come to West Virginia. Stand shoulder to shoulder on the second story of a marbled rotunda, with hundreds of fellow workers who are in absolute solidarity attempting to yell, chant, and sing down, the wooden doors of a senate chamber that sits behind 60ft tall marble columns, under a gold-leafed capitol building. To hear it, feel it, smell it and participate in it is incredible and I am encouraging everyone to act in solidarity with these workers. This isn’t the revolutionary struggle we may dream about, but it is perhaps a garden bed in which we can sew the seeds.

Here, praxis arose at the community level, from their own local roots. I didn’t meet a single teacher that talked to me about Marx or an international proletarian mass, I met only workers fed up with a bad gig and a tough life. I met workers who were practicing mutual aid in their towns. Workers who were traveling hours to protest, and hours again to take back their ideas and thoughts to their comrades at home on the line. Some were aware of the solidarity actions that were starting to pop up with talks and strikes in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and California, and others had no idea, and even felt as if their actions were all alone. I saw people disregarding political affiliation, union affiliation, or wage-based hierarchy to speak with a single voice. I saw strength not in solidarity.

Though, this may not be my idealized idea of struggle, I recognize that this is a working-class struggle, unique in its moment while also deeply rooted in the militant class struggle that West Virginia is famous for. I encourage us to explore the use of churches and other cultural structures that make up the fabric of sometimes rural and sometimes geographically isolated communities that many workers come from as avenues for revolutionary networking. If you bring anything, bring mutual aid. More than ever these folks need trust-worthy and kind people to provide childcare/education; food/welfare, and healthcare. Also, I would thank them. Being a teacher is already a thankless job, but teaching “America” about the importance of solidarity and class struggle is beyond what we could ask for. Power to the teachers! 55 strong!

IWW, IU620

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