In West Virginia, a picket line can feel like a family affair. Schools, like coal mines, are generational employers and, in Appalachia, labor struggles seem inherited, too. Who is leading one of the most significant grassroots labor movements of our time? Teachers who are the daughters and granddaughters of coal miners. They would like you to know they understand their history.
I spent three days in West Virginia last week, arriving in Morgantown on the third day of the strike, which is expected to end now that lawmakers have reached a deal to raise pay for state employees by 5 percent. I was there to give a public talk at West Virginia University about ways the region’s radical history complicates popular narratives of Appalachia as a site of complacency. (Talking points related to the 2016 election that suggest Appalachians have “let themselves be reduced to” destitution by a lack of ambition or self-destructive politics still sting.) As a centerpiece, I spoke about how past state leaders in West Virginia waged an intellectual war with historians to suppress the inclusion of labor struggles in its official history books. “Propaganda from start to finish,” was the reaction of then–Governor Homer Holt in 1940 when he read a manuscript funded by the federal government that acknowledged the significance of the mine wars. Holt, like many of his predecessors, was a creature of industry loyalty, and his hysterical reaction to the formation of a people’s history was not unique among the powerful.
When West Virginia teachers and public employees—an estimated 37,000 workers—decided to act on their frustrations with low pay and their broken insurance program, they spoke to their state leaders in a language specific to that suppressed history. When interviewed about the work stoppage underway, teachers emphasized that schools in the southern West Virginia coalfields provided the first wave of momentum. At the Capitol and on picket lines in all 55 counties, teachers, public employees, and their allies wore an important piece of historic insignia—red bandanas, a callback to the state’s militant labor struggles in which “redneck” miners led armed rebellions against coal companies. Helping rally teachers and public employees were officers from the United Mine Workers of America, who placed them in a shared genealogy of struggle that stretched back to Mother Jones. And when a de facto political leader emerged, it was an up-and-comer from Logan County in the state’s southern coalfields, where the powerful have sacrificed people and land for profit for more than a century.
That up-and-comer, State Senator Richard Ojeda, has called the strike “a fight for the soul and spirit of West Virginia that started hundreds of years ago.” Few familiar with the history of the region would call that an exaggeration. To be a person without wealth in West Virginia is to be the source of another’s wealth. Rank-and-file West Virginians know their value to the system in grim but precise ways—less than the price of coal and now natural gas, much less than the corporate tax breaks recycled through the system of crony capitalism that runs the state, and about the same as the occasional modest payout made by an industrial polluter for environmental crimes. Conflict-of-interest laws in West Virginia make it difficult for public employees to hold political office, but say nothing about what to do when the state’s own governor—and its richest man—holds economic development hostage with his refusal to pay his energy company’s taxes or resolve EPA violations.
Historically, West Virginia’s politicians have distracted from their own personal conflicts by introducing a host of others—artificial tensions and debates over who really keeps the state alive. For establishment politicians on both sides of the political aisle, it’s corporations they consider essential, particularly those connected to the fossil-fuel industry. While governor in 2006, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin slashed corporate taxes, gambling the state’s future ability to, for example, pay teachers and public employees adequately against the chance that lower taxes might spur new investment. Those who urge the state to recommit to the common good by reining in the dominion of industry are often cast as enemies of progress. Take the case of Charlotte Pritt, the populist Democrat who defeated Manchin in the 1996 gubernatorial primary only to see her downfall orchestrated by pro-business moderates in her own party.
Teachers on strike issued an explicit challenge to the largesse afforded to energy interests. Many made the case that the only viable way forward for West Virginia to both resolve the core issues surrounding the strike and ensure future economic stability is to do what many state political leaders both past and present would find heretical—corporate taxes must be raised. To raise salaries long-term and repair the state insurance program by any other means would be both unsustainable and deeply unethical. At the moment, however, this is precisely the route the state legislature appears to be traveling down: On Tuesday political leaders reached a deal to raise state employee salaries by 5 percent, but suggested they’d pay for it in part with a comprehensive package of cuts from social-services programs, including community-college-tuition assistance and Medicaid.
This strategy protects lawmakers’ personal and political relationships with corporate investors and, as a bonus, gives politicians up for reelection yet another artificial tension to introduce by pitting teachers and other public employees against the rest of the state’s working poor. More than a quarter of the West Virginia population is covered by Medicaid. Just as workers spoke to lawmakers in the specific language of their history, so too did lawmakers answer back in a history-filled language of their own. Their actions say any gains for workers must come from other workers, not those who exploit them.
Sarah Jaffe wrote in The New York Times that “our labor history is not that deeply buried. If workers are pushed hard enough, those ghosts will rise.” But what becomes of those ghosts now that the strike is all but settled, and according to somewhat toxic terms that favor the state’s interest? On a practical level, West Virginia workers have ignited what may become a larger movement from the bottom up, as teachers in Oklahoma strategize for their own strike. Out of the 37,000 employees who participated in the West Virginia strike, surely new labor leaders will emerge. These leaders are likely to be women, which would be consistent with the history of Appalachia. And, as a future voting bloc, the West Virginia public has demonstrated it might be willing to stand up to the abusive power of industry of the state. The people of West Virginia are not afraid of ghosts; we need the memories of those who loved us and fought for us now more than ever.