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.