We are all West Virginia

By Dana Blanchard

If people had told me a year ago that I would be driving back for the second time in a month to West Virginia — the state that voted more lopsidedly for Donald Trump in 2016 than any other — to talk with people about union organizing and socialist politics, I would have thought the idea was absurd.

But here we are — my partner came along for the second trip — driving along a mist-filled mountain highway in a cold rain to visit a group of people who have quickly turned everything the media has told us about “red states” on its head.

Looking back on the caricature that the media and sensationally awful books like Hillbilly Elegy have created of the poor, white, backward Trump voters in this part of the country, it’s obvious that they didn’t do any real research on working-class people in West Virginia.

They talk about working-class people, especially those who voted for Trump, like they’re an alien species, rather than a group of people who are frankly just sick and tired of being sick and tired — like the rest of us.

Yes, this is a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump. But it’s also a state that went for Bernie Sanders, an open socialist, in the Democratic primaries.

There are good reasons that many voters who typically vote Democrat didn’t support Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. West Virginia was essentially run by the Democratic Party for almost the entirety of the last century, so the Democrats are responsible in large part for the economic and social conditions people live under today.

Out of all the 121 terms of statewide office that have been regularly elected since 1932, all but seven were won by a Democrat. From 1930 to 2014, Democrats held majorities in both chambers of the West Virginia legislature.

West Virginia has had a Democratic governor for 64 of the last 85 years–including the current governor, Jim Justice, who was elected as a Democrat before switching back to a Republican in 2017.

Many West Virginians thought they could get change through voting for a different party. But some are starting to realize that they have to be the changemakers. That sentiment is what led to the teachers’ revolt.

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It’s clear from talking to people that they are looking for politics beyond what is offered through the ballot box.

West Virginia is much more than just a story about two-party political jockeying at the top of the state. It’s a state that broke away from Virginia during the Civil War over the issue of slavery — the people were opposed to slavery, and Virginia remained in the Confederacy.

It’s a state that saw militant, violent battles between Black, white and immigrant miners on one side and company coal bosses on the other. These workers battled for decades in the early 1900s to win basic union rights and freedom from control of the mining corporations in all aspects of their lives.

Striking miners and their families lived in tents when they were evicted from company housing in the dead of winter, rather than give in and go back to work.

In 1990, teachers went on strike for 11 days and mounted militant pickets at schools and bus yards across the state to win a raise. This history of struggle and radical politics has shaped generations of workers in West Virginia, and most certainly had an impact on the teachers’ strike of 2018.

While workers in West Virginia are shaped by the struggles of the past, they have also been impacted in an immediate way by the current teachers’ strike. Just like people talk reverently of family members who held the line against Big Coal, the striking teachers have inspired ordinary people across the state.

Walking around Charleston in the days after the strike victory, everyone was talking about how proud they were of the teachers and education workers.

“They deserve it” and “I’m glad they stood up for what is right” were common phrases in the coffee shop and hotel. It was like people felt that they had finally gained some ground on the crooks in the statehouse and won something for regular people who have been getting stepped on for far too long.

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In talking to some of the teachers who helped lead the strike, they were simultaneously energized and a little exhausted by the struggle, but also very cognizant that they still have major battles ahead.

The teachers we met with were proud of the way ordinary people came together across 55 counties to stand up and demand more. They were excited when teachers stood in solidarity with other state workers and refused to take a tiered wage increase.

These same teachers also said that until the billionaire oil and gas barons, many of whom hold positions in the state government, begin to pay their fair share, the fight for public services and well-funded classrooms must continue.

The ongoing struggle for funding public employee health care is just beginning in West Virginia. The state has created a task force and will be holding meetings across the state about the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) and how to fund it moving forward. This will most certainly be another space for struggle in the months to come.

For those of us who have worked in public schools, the politicians are raising a familiar narrative about the PEIA: “We have no money, how can we fund it?” They tell teachers and state workers that there’s no money for raises, health care or pensions while continuing to cut corporate taxes and give tax breaks to the very wealthy.

West Virginia is the very heart of the extraction industry — driving across the state, one sees not only coal tipples, but also fields of oil derricks, natural gas pipelines and chemical processing plants. Yet instead of raising taxes on the extraction industry, state legislators voted in 2016 to cut the oil and gas severance tax from an already meager 5 percent down to 3 percent by 2019.

This is one of the fights teachers and state workers are gearing up for next: Making those who profit off the state’s resources pay more to help fund social services and make up for the environmental degradation these industries continue to inflict.

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It’s also inspiring that most of the strikers who were on the front lines in West Virginia were women. In the era of #MeToo, this shows another layer to the struggle against sexism — that women deserve decent, well-paying jobs in addition to workplaces free from harassment.

As the coal jobs dried up in the last decade in West Virginia, women workers often became the sole wage earner in households across the state. Women workers aren’t exempt from raising families and being primary caregivers just because they work one or even two jobs outside the house.

The stories of mothers who made tremendous sacrifices to find childcare for their own kids in order to drive hours to the capital to stand up for the children in their classrooms as well showed the tremendous tenacity of the women strikers.

The women we met in West Virginia are leaders, union militants and organizers, and many of them are also mothers and wives. They refuse to be typecast. They are juggling all the things that capitalism throws at working families while managing to be part of the most exciting act of workers’ resistance in decades.

Perhaps the biggest lesson from my visit to West Virginia is that while we may live in different states and have different life experiences, we have so much in common in our struggle as workers.

One of the teachers we met with spoke candidly of having to choose between paying for a medical procedure for their infant son and buying food and diapers that month.

They spoke of generational poverty and what it’s like to inherit nothing but debt and live paycheck to paycheck despite having advanced degrees and working for nearly a decade in education.

They talked about how some of their students live in housing conditions like those in the shantytowns of apartheid South Africa, and how it’s understandable in these conditions that schools have become places not just for teaching skills, but for building communities of support that provide meals and comprehensive social services for people who have no other options.

Pictures of broken chairs, tattered textbooks, mold and pest infestations in classrooms, stories of working multiple jobs to make ends meet — this is the narrative playing out on people’s Facebook feeds and in the stories from teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona.

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It’s horrifying, but it’s not completely unfamiliar. In some ways, what we are beginning to see is that we are all West Virginia. For decades, education workers have existed in conditions that continue to deteriorate due to long-term neglect.

Whether it’s no heat in schools in Baltimore or lead in the water in Detroit and Flint public schools, teachers have been trying to make it work and doing their best in situations that are completely unacceptable.

However, education workers are also beginning to take a page from West Virginia in other ways, too. We are starting to believe we’re worthy of better — that we deserve more, that the children we teach deserve better, and to get it, we have to be willing to fight for it. And if we fight for it together, we can win.

Driving home from West Virginia to Chicago, past the signs for Cabin Creek and Paint Creek, sites of the infamous mine wars from decades past, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful.

Not the kind of blind hopefulness that means putting faith in politicians to do something for us, but hope in what West Virginia teachers showed us–that we can do it for ourselves.

I am grateful to have been able to spend a few days talking to people who are now both my heroes and friends — to be able to learn from them and be a small part of knitting together this rich narrative of worker resistance that is, hopefully, just a beginning of larger fightback for the schools and working conditions we know we deserve.

Anthony Cappetta contributed to this article.