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The Activist Surge


James Bennet’s tenure hasn’t been a total bust — Michelle Goldberg was an excellent hire, and it’s good to see an intelligent discussion of labor in the nation’s most-read op-ed page:

That’s one reason the statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia, which on Monday entered its eighth day, is so thrilling. Strikes by teachers are unlawful in the state, and their unions lack collective bargaining rights. Nevertheless, in a revival of West Virginia’s long-dormant tradition of bold labor activism, teachers and some other school employees in all of the state’s 55 counties are refusing to return to work until lawmakers give them a 5 percent raise, and commit to addressing their rapidly rising health insurance premiums.

Observers of the local labor scene didn’t see this coming. “It’s hard to characterize the surprise that many of us felt who have studied the labor movement in this state,” said Ken Fones-Wolf, a labor historian at West Virginia University.

Statewide teacher strikes are extremely rare, and to some in West Virginia, this one feels like a new dawn. “People are starting to get angrier and remember our history, remember our roots,” said Jenny Craig, a middle school special education teacher in Triadelphia. Since the strike began, she’s been spending nearly all her time either picketing at her home school or demonstrating at the state capitol, a three-hour drive away.

The obvious impetus for the strike lies in the state’s terrible treatment of its teachers, whose pay ranked 48th in the nation in 2016. In the past, solid health care benefits helped make up for low wages, but because West Virginia hasn’t been putting enough money into the state agency that insures public employees, premiums and co-payments have been increasing significantly.


Yet if the strike is rooted in the specific conditions and history of West Virginia, it’s also part of a nationwide upsurge in intense civic engagement by women. “As a profession, we’re largely made up of women,” Amanda Howard Garvin, an elementary school art teacher in Morgantown, told me. “There are a bunch of men sitting in an office right now telling us that we don’t deserve anything better.” In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, she said, women across the country are standing up to say: “No. We’re equal here.”

Of course, Trump won West Virginia overwhelmingly, with nearly 68 percent of the vote. Still, Craig described the anti-Trump Women’s March, as well as the explosion of local political organizing that followed it, as a “catalyst” for at least some striking teachers. “You have women now taking leadership roles in unionizing, in standing up, in leading initiatives for fairness and equality and justice for everyone,” she said.

Rebellion, it seems, is contagious. Now teachers in Oklahoma — where in 2016 salaries ranked 49th in the country — are considering their own statewide strike. Kentucky teachers, concerned about changes to their pension plans, could walk out as well.

Read the whole etc.

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