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The West Virginia Strike

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Teachers John and Kerry Guerini of Fayetteville, West Virginia, hold signs at a rally at the state Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., Monday, Feb. 26, 2018. Teachers across West Virginia will continue a walkout over pay and benefits for a fourth day. (AP Photo/John Raby)

I suppose I should have a hot take about the West Virginia teachers strike. I do and I don’t. My take really isn’t that this fulfills whatever preconceived talking points I have about labor and solidarity, which is probably why I’m kind of bad at punditry and why I find book writing more successful than op-eds. My take such as it is is really just that workers will always fight to make a better life for themselves, that the process by which this happens will change over time, and that sudden and rapid change can happen almost overnight, which this strike might represent and then again, it might not.

That said, I have some thoughts that I will base upon others’ work and things I have read. First, from Josh Eidelson’s piece in Bloomberg:

For some teachers, deciding to stay out on strike – despite a deal their union leaders reached that was supposed to get them back in the classroom – was easier than deciding to strike in the first place. Many doubted that the legislature would actually sign off on the governor’s agreement to raise their pay by 5 percent, and they weren’t happy that the deal created a task force to address escalating health costs in lieu of a concrete solution.

Some said they also felt responsible to the teachers who planned to keep striking, because they wouldn’t cross a picket line. “Even though they said that we’d go back on Thursday, nobody was ready to go at any school that I visited – and I visited a lot of schools,” said history teacher and local union officer Greg Phillips.

This kind of workplace turbulence could become more common if the Supreme Court gets rid of mandatory fees, a decision that would make more of the country “right-to-work.” Many states legalized collective bargaining and mandatory fees in hopes of averting wildcat disruptions and securing “labor peace,” and they largely have.

If more moderate members decline to fund their unions, the remaining members could prove more eager for aggressive action. If unions can’t get the state to guarantee they can collect fees from everyone they’re representing, they could be more hesitant to give the state a guarantee that their members won’t strike. And if some unions give up their right to represent non-members and reboot as “members-only” groups advocating just for those who pay dues, unions could end up in competition with one another, trying to outdo each other with more militant, demonstrative protests.

This is a possible fallout from Janus and the rest of the New Gilded Age attacks on unions. Shaun Richman has pointed a way forward here and while I am not as optimistic, he may be more right than a pessimist might think. A big and highly underrated reason why unions succeeded in the mid-20th century was that big corporations themselves came to rely on them to discipline the labor force, to help stop over-competition within industries but undermining the ability to cut labor costs, and come to reasonable agreements that kept the workplace operating smoothly. That was extended to the public sector since 1960. If unions are once again made quasi-illegal, then the labor stability they created goes away too and there is more room for workers to just be pissed and walk off the job.

As Sarah Jaffe pointed out, a lot of these teachers had histories of labor activism in their families. The core of the strike is in the coal country. Labor militancy is in the culture there. And this is why it was always a huge error to dismiss these voters entirely in the aftermath of the 2016 election, to dismiss “economic anxiety” as something to laugh at, to dismiss their actual concerns. Check out this long Politico profile today of Richard Ojeda, who has a very good (I’d say over 50% chance) of winning WV-3 as a Democrat, a district Trump won by 50 points. Ojeda is a hero to these teachers. He is a hard core labor union guy. He is a tattooed veteran who swears. He also voted for Donald Trump. Here’s how he talks about this:

In the red Jeep on the way back to Logan, I asked Ojeda about his vote for Trump, a fact that in another state could be seen as disqualifying for a Democrat.

“I voted for him because it was about family and friends,” he said. “Nobody else was saying anything. Hillary Clinton was coming here blowing smoke up everybody’s ass. Hell, I wanted Bernie Sanders”—and he wasn’t the only one, obviously, as Sanders beat Clinton in the primaries in all 55 counties—“but once Bernie Sanders was screwed over by Hillary Clinton, by the way, you had no other option.”

He regrets his vote for Trump.

“Sure do,” he said.

Because?

“Because he hasn’t done shit,” he said. “It’s been a friggin’ circus for a solid year.” Nothing’s changed. So many people in southern West Virginia are still poor and need jobs. The opioid epidemic rages unabated. “All he’s done,” Ojeda said, “is shown that he’s taking care of the daggone people he’s supposed to be getting rid of.”

I know people here hate to hear this. But Hillary Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate. Not because this is her fault per se. But because of 25 years of the media hating her and telling terrible stories about her, and yes, because of her own weaknesses too, but mostly because of the media. She was so damaged from the beginning that a charlatan like Trump looked good in comparison. People legitimately wanted something different. They aren’t real sophisticated. They are low information voters. And to them, Hillary Clinton was something very not different. Now, yes, racism and misogyny are absolutely a piece of this. But a lot of these voters are horrified by Trump and are at least interested in returning to the Democrats. We are seeing this right now in PA-18, where Conor Lamb may well win the upcoming special election, based in no small part on Trump voters returning to the Democrats. They aren’t hopeless. And unlike Joe Manchin, at least on some issues, Ojeda holds very leftist positions. A Democratic wave is going to not only include Trump voters returning to Democrats, it’s going to include Trump voters begin elected as Democrats.

What does this have to do with the West Virginia teachers strike? Because a lot of these teachers raising hell were also Trump voters. Probably most of them were. And it’s not as if they are lost either. They are now taking on the dirty energy industry in their own state, as Sarah Jones discusses. There’s even stalk of other state workers now coming onto the picket lines in solidarity, moving this toward something like a general strike.

So I don’t know how this ends. And I don’t know what it means. Anyone who tells you they know what it means does not actually know what it means or what it will lead to. But we can say that a) Trump voters can still act in leftist manners and still change the world in a positive way and rejecting them entirely is terrible politics no matter how bitter you may be, b) this strike is the latest in a long history of workplace struggles that dignify workers’ lives, c) that there will be more struggles like this in the future, and d) that any given strike can change the world and that this could be the next of those strikes.

In any case, this is the biggest story in the nation right now, as much as we (well, you, certainly not me) would like to talk more about Hope Hicks and Jared Kushner.

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