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Students rally support for West Virginia teachers' strike

AFSC Appalachian Center for Equality (ACE) participants showed up prepared for long days of protest during West Virginia’s #55Strong teachers’ strike Photo: Liz Brunello / AFSC

When the West Virginia legislative session began in January, AFSC staff dreaded 60 days of attacks on working and low-income people and cuts to business taxes and social programs.

Instead, there was a statewide nonviolent uprising of teachers and school support workers that resulted in a five percent raise for all state employees, improvements to the Public Employees Insurance Agency, and the defeat of several anti-worker bills.

The uprising, while supported by unions, was grassroots driven, with much leadership coming from younger women.

Discontent had long been brewing, driven by high insurance costs, stagnant wages, and disrespect by lawmakers and the administration of Gov. Jim Justice. A history of unproductive corporate tax cuts not only led to the state’s budgeting woes, but also fed the fires of discontent.

After a partial work stoppage in coalfield counties, the wave spread statewide to all 55 counties, resulting in school closings supported by education workers, school super-intendents, and much of the public, including students.

After nine days of massive protests, resistance by key Republican legislators, and a roller coaster ride of negotiations, a compromise was reached that was better than most expected.

The AFSC WV Economic Justice Project (WVEJ) has long worked on tax and budget issues with allies such as the WV Center on Budget and Policy. Suddenly, these budget and tax concerns were a huge part of the conversation and the grievance expressed by teachers, both online and at the Capitol.

According to WVEJ director Rick Wilson, “These things can seem boring. But breathing can seem boring until somebody starts choking you. Then it’s fascinating. That was the case here.”

Wilson noted that longstanding issues with West Virginia’s economy, including failure to retain wealth from the state’s abundant resources, rose to the surface during discussions on how to resolve the strike. “This kind of struggle also reveals the consequences of a colonial economy where natural wealth that could have improved education and infrastructure has been drained away by absentee corporations for over 100 years.”

WVEJ staff worked closely with the AFSC’s Appalachian Center for Equality (ACE) project, which provides mentoring and opportunities for civic engagement for young people in three coalfield counties, starting with a teach-in on West Virginia’s long history of labor struggles. Young women from the Boone County program were especially active in public rallies, protests, picket lines, and in supporting community efforts to ensure that children affected by the work stoppage continued to receive food and child care.

The young women took the lead in organizing a youth-led rally and march in support of teachers that drew over 1,000 participants and was pictured on state and national media, including the New York Times and Washington Post.

Liz Brunello, ACE youth coordinator, said it did not take long for students to engage and recruit support. “Rather than being frustrated at the inconvenience and worried about losing their spring break, our students were immediately ready to jump into action to help their teachers.”

ACE participants Jazmine Aliff, Manar Hesino and Juliana Perdue explained in an op-ed with the Charleston Gazette that when the strike started, youth were quick to recognize the dedication of school employees. “Before the strike, our teachers already set an amazing example for us of what it looks like to truly care about your job and your community. They don’t just spend eight hours a day, five days a week on students. They stay after school to tutor us, take time out of their weekends to grade our work and help us improve.”

“The students understood the connections between treatment of their teachers and the quality of their own education, so it was really a no-brainer,” Brunello reported. “I think some members of the legislature underestimated the amount of passionate support that would come from these kids and their families throughout this whole thing.”

Social media, particularly a public employees Facebook page with about 25,000 members, played a valuable role in the struggle. It allowed the AFSC and allies to provide talking points, analysis, charts, graphs, rally songs, etc.

During the strike, WVEJ’s Lida Shepherd pointed out that “The big dog lobbyists, who usually saunter around the State Capitol like they own the place, seemed shell-shocked by the thousands of teachers suddenly drowning out their influence.” She was sad to see the teachers leave after their victory. “You could feel the energy drain away after the victory, so we know our work over the next months will be to keep that fire burning.”

The movement has inspired friends of working people and has contributed to actions by teachers and public sector workers in other states. The task remaining is to build on this incredible victory and use the momentum to raise awareness and push for more positive change.

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