The recent nine-day strike by West Virginia’s teachers and school personnel is a lesson for every labor activist in the power of collective action.
West Virginia’s teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation, and they hadn’t received a raise in four years. The move to strike came after state lawmakers had proposed a 1 percent pay raise – not enough to cover rising health care costs.
“The unwritten story here is that when you strip people’s voice for so long and you take so much from them, there is a point at which people will stand up,” American Federation of Teachers National President Randi Weingarten told USA TODAY. “And that is the story of what happened in West Virginia.”
Teachers and school personnel from every one of West Virginia’s 55 counties joined in the strike, which was an unprecedented show of force. Workers organized under the banner #55strong.
As Dave Jamieson writes in Huffington Post, such solidarity gave the workers a strong bargaining position at the outset:
Early in the strike, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) traveled the state in what was widely seen as an effort to convince certain counties to reopen their schools, as a partial reopening would weaken the teachers’ hand. If that was Justice’s aim, it was unsuccessful. The workers who flooded the Capitol daily from all corners of the state continued to chant “Fifty-five strong” and “Fifty-five united,” knowing not a single link in the chain had been broken.
The striking workers also made sure to win the community’s support, doing things like making sure students would continue to be fed while schools were closed.
The strike ended when an agreement was reached to provide all teachers and school personnel with a 5 percent raise.
Teachers in other states are eyeing similar shows of solidarity, including Oklahoma teachers considering walking off the job in April.
By coming together and staying strong, West Virginia’s teachers and school personnel demonstrated to all working people the power of collective action.