HARRINGTON: West Virginia strike sets inspirational precedent


One of the most impressive and inspirational movements of 2018 has largely flown under the radar in terms of media coverage: the West Virginia teacher’s strike.

In a time of protests and resistance, the teachers of West Virginia’s public schools scored a huge win for education labor in the state and have inspired teachers in other states to follow suit. Despite the lack of mass media attention, the teachers of West Virginia have created a sterling example for how to not only enact social change but secure these changes for the future.

The strike was spurred by benefit cuts, spikes in health insurance premiums and inadequate pay raises passed by the West Virginia state government.

The average salary for a West Virginia teacher is approximately $44,701, placing West Virginia 48 out of all states in terms of teacher salaries. Not only are the teachers of West Virginia negatively affected, but students are as well. Due to unjust pay rates, paired with increasingly disadvantageous benefits and the rise of charter schools in the state, public education is losing quality teachers hand over foot.

Unlike most labor strikes, the West Virginia teachers began and continued their walkout without the approval of their union leadership. Through a series of clandestine Facebook groups and pages, the strike was organized by teachers who had enough of being underpaid by their state.

Despite the technical illegality of the unauthorized strike, the teachers of West Virginia closed every school in the state until they were satisfied with the solution met between their representatives and the state government. This sustained strike would not have been possible without the support of parents, local churches and labor organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America and the International Workers of the World.

The significant element of the strike that elevates it above most contemporary protest is that it created a crisis that needed to be resolved. These were not just actions filling the halls of the State house or simple picket lines, this was a unilateral demand for fair treatment and worker’s rights. Opposition from legislators was made public by strikers and the targets were clear.

Fed up with inaction from their own union and neglect from their elected officials, these brave educators organized themselves and proved how impactful their work is on the state of West Virginia. With schools closed, working parents were suddenly stuck with children to attend to. Local businesses were affected by the lack of open schools. This display of the role that public education serves in daily life bolstered the striking teachers arguments for higher pay.

After nearly two weeks of back and forth proposals to return teachers to schools, the strike ended in a massive victory for the teachers. All of their demands, including restrictions on the development of charter schools and pay increases, were met by the end of the strike.

The well-organized movement was powered by impassioned citizens and those involved refused to back down until they knew they had secured some significant victories for teachers across the state. The movement also garnered support from online crowdfunding and local community members, showing that labor struggles in this country can gain traction from outside influences as well.

This kind of wildcat mentality is exactly what the so-called #Resistance in this country needs if it wants to be taken seriously. Other states, like Oklahoma, Kansas and Kentucky have begun organizing their teachers to combat policies detrimental to the pay and benefits of the public education system.

Watching these educators organize and draw a line in the sand has been an inspirational moment in contemporary American life that has been critically under-represented in the mass media.

Refusing to back down in the pursuit of what is unarguably a social good, even in the face of controversy and potential backlash, is not just an admirable cause — it’s an American tradition. Post-Industrial Revolution labor struggles have been common in this country to varying degrees of success. The labor may have differed between each cause and each strike, but the spirit and intensity of these protests come from the same American ideology: Only through unity and determination can people change their circumstances for the better.