The Reds in the Hills: An Anarcho-Syndicalist Interpretation of the Contemporary West Virginia Teachers' Strike

Michael Mochaidean | Labor Issues | Analysis | February 27th, 2018

Historical Overview

In 1990, the average annual salary for West Virginia public teachers was $21,904, making it the 49th worst state for educator pay; only Mississippi's was worse. The state's Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) was backlogged, with medical expenses taking almost half a year to be addressed. The teacher retirement fund had a $2 billion hole that grew larger each fiscal year, impacting retirees' insurance and state pension.

Today, in 2018, the average annual salary for West Virginia public teachers is $45,000, making it the 48th worst state for educator pay in the nation. By fiscal year 2020, premiums are set to increase for PEIA recipients by 15.2%, 14.3% (2021), and then another 10% (2022). For retirees, it is even worse. PEIA recipients on Medicare are expected to see an increase in their premiums by 38.9% (2020, 29% (2021), and then another (32.8%).

It is no wonder, then, that in both 1990 and 2018, educators across the state utilized direct action tactics to demand greater action be done to fund the state's public programs. Parallels have been drawn between both strikes in the recent past. In a Sunday editorial in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, for example, a poster reflected in "Not Your Mom's Teacher Strike?" that the 1990 strike and the current strike in 2018 suffered from a recurring theme of long-term underfunding of public health care programs, poor teacher pay, and few incentives built in to retain high-quality educators in the state.

The similarities don't stop there. The rhetorical strategy of positioning educators as hotheaded firebrands, whose only concerns are for themselves, have not changed in the almost three decades since the first statewide walkout. In 1990, soon after the strike was announced, Governor Caperton (D) declared that he would not meet with teachers or their union representatives until "calm and reason are restored and the teaching force returns to the classroom." In 2018, Governor Justice (R) recently declared that he would work towards a resolution to this issue when "cooler heads prevail," signaling that Republican legislators were acting calmer and more collected than the educators themselves. Similarly, the state's primary law enforcement agency, the Attorney General's Office, has made quick use of its power of injunction in an attempt to first break public sector unions, and then to establish precedent in future cases. In 1990, Attorney General Roger Tompkins declared the strike illegal in a formal memo that would later be used in Jefferson County Board of Education v. Jefferson County Education Association (1990). The Jefferson County BOE case would go on to state that, "Public employees have no right to strike in the absence of express legislation or, at the very least, appropriate statutory provisions for collective bargaining, mediation and arbitration." As West Virginia has none of the latter, any formal walkout would therefore be deemed illegal in the eyes of the court. In 2018, Attorney General Patrick Morrissey (R) released his own memo on the teacher walkout utilizing the precedent of Tompkins' 1990 memo and the subsequent Jefferson County BOE case to state that "the impending work stoppage is unlawful. State law and court rulings give specific parties avenues to remedy such illegal conduct, including the option to seek an injunction to end an unlawful strike."

Perhaps the only difference between these two events in the color of the state's legislature and governor's mansion. West Virginia, once proudly staunch Democrats, is now a hotbed of conservative Republican lawmakers. Republicans went from having a 18-16 majority in the state senator to a 22-12 majority in 2016. Governor Justice, who ran and won as a Democrat, switched his political party to Republican over the summer in an attempt to court President Trump's influence and, potentially, a cabinet position.

Such changes matter little in a state where both parties have played on the contemporary cultural fears or economic anxieties of their citizens. From the painful ramifications of trickle-down economics in 1990 to the neo-liberal drive to privatize public services in 2018, Democrats and Republicans have used whichever economic theory happens to be in vogue at their time to harm state workers, bringing them to the brink of death only to resuscitate them with a glimmer of social democracy. In the aftermath of the 1990 strike, for example, annual salary for public teachers increased by $5,000, to be distributed over a three-year period from 1991 to 1993, while the $2 billion pension gap was addressed over the course of the decade. More recently, the state's legislature has proposed meager percentage-based raises to be distributed over the next several years. Proposals vary, but range from a 5% increase spread over 4 years to a 4% increase spread over 3 years; each percentage raise would be $404 per educator. Governor Justice announced only a few weeks ago, when pressure began mounting on the legislature, that there would be no change in premiums or deductibles for state employees using PEIA. Such changes reflect a recognition of the power of grassroots democracy when coupled with direct action and statewide solidarity efforts, yet fall short of any substantive change in the fundamental workings of the state's social or economic trajectory. State Senator Richard Ojeda (D), now famous across the state as a "working-class Democrat" and somewhat of a celebrity (who, coincidentally, is also running for West Virginia's 3rd Congressional District this year) has proposed a series of severance taxes aimed against the natural gas industry to help fill gaps in PEIA funding. For every 1% raise in the state's severance tax on natural gas extraction, the state estimates that it will have around $40 million in new revenue. Much like the coal and timber industries before it, such a severance tax would plug metaphorical holes in the state's public services budget, but would do little to provide meaningful change to the operative conditions of workers. Recent statistics put the death toll for West Virginia miners from 1883 to 2018 at 21,000, while statistics for those that have died in the timber industry are inconsistent. In both instances, corporate profits have trended upward over the course of their history.

As the famed robber baron J.P. Morgan once said, "We are not in business for our health."

Theoretical Interpretation

Sol-i-dar-i-ty (noun): 1) unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; 2) mutual support within a group.

The renowned union song Solidarity Forever is over a century old and has been sung at labor gatherings and trade halls since Ralph Chaplin first penned it in 1915. The chorus extols the listener to remember that through unity in action, with a shared purpose, strength can overcome the greatest odds. "For the union makes us strong."

Chaplin's inspiration for the lyrics came about during his time covering the Kanawha coal miners' strike in Huntington, West Virginia. Over the course of his lifetime, Solidarity Forever would become a mainstay among business and industrial unions. Its lack of sectarianism provided all sympathetic union members the opportunity to sing together, regardless of labor orientation.

Chaplin, however, grew dissatisfied with its popularity and would go on to pen, "Why I wrote Solidarity Forever," wherein he states that, "I didn't write Solidarity Forever for ambitious politicians or for job-hungry labor fakirs seeking a ride on the gravy train." Solidarity, for Chaplin, was a process, a verb. It had to be reshaped in each new movement by a brand of committed industrial unions with a tendency towards dismantling capitalism and abolishing wage slavery. Unlike the more widespread AFL, the IWW, to which Chaplin belonged, took the struggle of workers' rights throughout the first two decades of the 20th century to include direct action politics - ranging from work slowdowns and work stoppages to lock outs and sabotage efforts. Solidarity through unified action, and unified action towards the "birth [of] a new world from the ashes of the old," could be the only end-goal for union efforts.

Peruse the secret Facebook group "West Virginia Public Employees UNITED" and you'll find post after post referencing Chaplin's most famous song. To the passerby, it may seem that the affinity for this song is first and foremost its tune familiarity - sung to the Battle Hymn of the Republic - while secondly, the song provides inspiration for trying times to the everyday worker seeking that reprieve from the capitalist system Chaplin describes. Educators on this page have posted signs detailing their "solidarity forever" with fellow unions, such as the UMWA, UE, and IBEW, and vice versa. The highly-paid staff for these business unions, not to mention their traditional lobbying tactics, would be enough to churn the stomach of any good Wobbly, and it appears at first that the teachers are being led by the same sort of social democracy that they have fallen for in the past.

Leninists, too, have begun critiquing the teachers' strike, yet from an angle that argues, in essence, that the class struggle cannot operate within the single-dimensional framework of public employees. Quoting Lenin in Our Immediate Tasks, they argue, "When the workers of a single factory or of a single branch of industry engage in struggle against their employer or employers, is this class struggle? No, this is only a weak embryo of it. The struggle of the workers becomes a class struggle only when all the foremost representatives of the entire working class of the whole country are conscious of themselves as a single working class and launch a struggle that is directed, not against individual employers, but against the entire class of capitalists and against the government that supports that class." Utilizing the age-old Leninist argument that a revolutionary vanguard party is the sine qua non of all worker struggles, Leninists have challenged the belief that the teachers' strike can have significant impacts on their own, as they are by and large directed, or funded by, business unions, and that the "trade-union consciousness" which Lenin speaks of in What is To Be Done? inherently casts a shadow of doubt over the efficacy of any worker struggle outside of the vanguard.

The theoretical sectarian struggles to this point have been ones that center the discourse on this struggle as one that de-historicizes the larger framework of this narrative, provides a monolithic overview of individual and independent associations into one larger struggle, and relies on standard tropes to paint broadly the teachers-as-union-slaves narrative. In this sense, I hope to set the record straight on the contemporary West Virginia teachers' strike that is currently unfolding while providing my own interpretations of its theoretical foundations.

What Is Our Struggle?

Last year, I was fortunate enough to attend my association's state Delegate Assembly. Every year, the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) hosts an assembly to elect new officers, provides a framework for future legislative efforts, and meets to discuss relevant issues with educators from across the state. It was at this assembly that I began to grow frustrated with the efforts of President Dale Lee and Executive Director David Haney - both of whom used portions of their assembly speeches to denounce educators who had voted for Republicans and "against their own interests" the previous November. In light of this treatment, I wrote a scathing article about these events in The Socialist Worker in July, hoping to simply vent my frustrations with a wider audience of like-minded thinkers, but assuming little would come of it; I was wrong.

A few weeks after the article was published, a now-comrade of mine - who for the sake of anonymity will be referred to as "Fred" - contacted me with a simple request: "We need to talk about your article." Fred had been at the Delegate Assembly, too, and felt as frustrated as I by the inability of union leadership to effectively mount a serious opposition to reactionary legislation. Over the summer, Fred and I began discussing dates for a grassroots "day at the capitol" lobbying day. We settled on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day because we knew the legislators would be in session and educators would also have the day off, so it would be both convenient and time sensitive. Throughout the next several months, Fred began working on a Facebook group that was then called "West Virginia Public Teachers UNITED." Our goal was to agitate and educate sympathetic teachers across the state into one large group. Each educator was expected to add at least 10 new members that they knew would support our efforts. Over time, we saw the page grow from a few dozen members to several hundred.

By November, we began to worry. Someone had added a member of the executive committee to the group and union leadership was not happy at the efforts we had made. Nonetheless, they realized that if they attempted to halt what progress we had made, they would be halting a real attempt at substantive change, something that hadn't been seen in decades; they took control of the lobby day and began coordinating with local leadership for the next few months. During that time, however, educators continued to post about possible legislation that would arise during the 2018 legislative session. Fears turned into anger as posters began to demand action, and it was at this time that serious talks of a statewide strike were seen. Posters who had been present during the 1990 strike or who had a family member who was on the picket lines then began drawing parallels between the two events organically, recognizing the underlying themes of decades of economic exploitation and the inherent failures of the American democratic experience. The posters were being educated daily, and this education led to their agitation at the state of affairs.

As the Martin Luther King, Jr. Lobby Day rolled around, posters began making concerted efforts to find carpools to the capitol. It looked online as if there would be a mass of teachers waiting in the rotunda to hear what could be done to fix public education for the foreseeable future; in reality, only a little over a hundred educators and supporters showed up. They were greeted by President Dale Lee, who in a surprise move, mentioned the upsurge in revolutionary talk. "I've heard a lot of people talk about 'It's time for a walkout or time for a strike,'" Lee said at the time. "But those are not the first steps in that decision. It's not the first step in what we should do to achieve our goals. If we were to get back to that, there's a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid beforehand." In essence, Lee had given the go-ahead to local leadership to begin efforts at rallying people to join in direct action politics. Mobilization efforts began almost instantaneously. Stories of legislators accosting teachers, refusing to meet with some groups, and outright rejecting basic facts and data from others showed the educators who did arrive that there could be no compromise with the reactionary forces they were fighting - it had to be all or nothing.

The next major rally was scheduled for February 17th. In between the rallies, local counties held a vote of authorization. This would allow state leadership to act on behalf of counties and locals at large. Once the vote had taken place, country presidents would meet at Flatwoods, WV to certify the vote in their county and provide leadership with a firm number of who would support direct action and who would not. The total percentage in support of authorizing statewide action was above 85% - well beyond the expectation of 70% that had been floated as an ideal percentage. The numbers in check and the votes certified, leadership decided to prepare for an eventual statewide walkout that would occur on Thursday, February 22 nd.

On that fateful day, estimates of 5,000 individuals met at the capitol to protest the lack of reforms the state has pushed and demanding long-term funding for PEIA, greater percentage raises for teachers, and a halt to reactionary legislation across the board. At one point, the state's Attorney General became so frightened by the protests outside his office that he barricaded his door with a large, taxidermied black bear. Walkouts continued the following day, even though numbers had dwindled significantly from Thursday to Friday at the capitol.

Meanwhile, online organizing had continued unabated. Several months prior, Fred had decided to change the name of the page from "West Virginia Teachers UNITED" to "West Virginia Public Employees UNITED." Fred realized the stagnant numbers we were drawing would not be able to sustain a mass movement, but even more so, Fred realized that the struggle our group faced was one that transcended our profession, yet was inherently wrapped up in the politics of it. West Virginia teachers could not succeed, he argued, without the widespread outpouring of support from all public employees, who have also been at the forefront of this onslaught against the public sector. Moreover, cross-labor solidarity efforts could show the public that a teachers' strike was not intended simply to alleviate the ills of an under-funded education system; rather, they were an attempt to save all public employees from the state itself. It was at this point that the Facebook page had reached critical mass - over 20,000 active posters. Posters began to talk frequently in person about the lessons they learned from the page, the information being disseminated taught them the limits of electoral politics and the need for greater direct action politics to effect any change. Organization began on the site as well during this time, with some counties splitting off to decide how best to coordinate local efforts for picketing, leafleting, walk-ins, walk-outs, and public relations campaigns.

Posters listened carefully for word on Friday afternoon of an impending rolling walkout to circumvent the Attorney General's upcoming injunction against the unions. Local leadership had told members that week to prepare for this action, listing the benefits of it and how to best organize in defense should educators be required to go to work those days under penalty of suspension or firing. During this week, too, posters complained vociferously that such an action would not have the intended consequences for the legislature. If the legislature knew when we would strike and how long to prepare for, then they would have no need to make a compromise, the argument went. Once again, to everyone's surprise, Lee stated that the walkouts would continue into Monday. It appeared that the grassroots push to have leadership take an active role in listening to its members had its desired effect. Even under threat of injunction, union leadership was keen on the idea of pushing for statewide action, almost indefinitely, until the principal demands had been met.

Theoretical Connections to Anarcho-Syndicalism

At the heart of anarcho-syndicalism is a two-fold attack against the ills of capitalism: 1) a decentralized, horizontal model of leadership that treats all members as first amongst equals, and 2) an abolition of the state through workers' self-management. The quintessential anarcho-syndicalist union of the early 20th century - the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) - initially organized around these sets of principals as well. Based in Barcelona, the CNT was an anarcho-syndicalist union organized across all sectors of employment. CNT capitalized on the worsening economic and political conditions of Spain in the lead up to global war to form autonomous collectives in the major urban centers throughout the peninsula. Though still mostly a rural nation, Barcelona became a central hub for modern industry in their singular productive industry textile mills. The Spanish losses of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War over a decade prior had damaged Spain's already fractured economy by forcing it to rely less and less on its sugar production and more on national industries based in the peninsula. Catalonia in the north, for example, was the only region in Spain where industrial output was greater than agricultural production.

Beginning with only 26,000 members in 1911, the CNT initiated a general strike which would later be deemed illegal by local authorities for several years. The illegality of this action, however, provided new in-roads upon which the CNT would build. In the interwar period, the CNT had a central role to play in the organizing of the 1919 La Canadiense general strike. This forty-four day general strike forced the Spanish government to agree to the world's first eight-hour work day. 70% of Catalonia's industry was halted during the La Canadiense general strike, and the CNT reached a membership of 755,000 as a result of their successes. According to libcom, "about 10% of the active Spanish adult population was a member of the CNT in 1919."

Declines among the CNT would slowly matriculate as businesses began hiring thugs - similar to the Pinkerton agents of American lore - who would murder union members and leaders with ruthless efficiency, though over the course of the Spanish Civil War, membership would balloon up to 1.58 million by the end of the war. The culminating blow to the CNT would ultimately come with the ascension of Francisco Franco and his Fascist forces, who outlawed the union and forced it to go underground. Much of the history of the CNT is paralleled across reactionary Europe and the United States, to groups such as the IWW and the IWA, which have recently seen an increase in membership.

The theoretical tendencies and historical parallels between the CNT and the contemporary West Virginia teachers' strike can show the deep-seated roots of anarcho-syndicalist tendencies underneath the surface of otherwise conservative states. In theory, anarcho-syndicalists view local autonomy and organizing around shared interests at a directly democratic level will provide the greatest change in society. Noam Chomsky, in his Anarcho-syndicalism: Theory and Practice, relays his views of anarcho-syndicalism to be, "a federated, decentralized system of free associations, incorporating economic as well as other social institutions…" The CNT's model of this association model contrasts with Marxist-Leninist tendencies which seek to form a revolutionary party model upon which a vanguard will appear and act as democratic leaders to herald in the revolution.

Similarly, the contemporary West Virginia teachers' strike has both the material and organizing conditions that make an anarcho-syndicalist system possible. First, West Virginia's economic devastation is a result of what has been called the "resource curse" or the "paradox of plenty" - wherein regions have an abundance of natural resources that can spur larger economic growth in various sectors, yet tend to become stagnant economically - and what Immanuel Wallerstein would deem the "Periphery status" within world-systems theory. According to Wallerstein, periphery states lack economic diversity, are semi-industrialized but only insofar as they provide products to core states, become targets for multinational corporate investment in extracting surplus labor or resources, and have high a pool of labor that is disproportionately poor and lacking in education. Wallerstein tended to view nation-states as at least somewhat monolithic in this regard - treating the United States as a collective core nation and China as a collective core periphery state, for example - without a recognition of the complexities of capital within the communities of those states themselves. If we expand Wallerstein's notion of periperhy status to West Virginia as a whole, a more uniform pattern of shared economic destiny can be understood:

In the case of West Virginia:

1. Ranked fourth highest in the nation for obesity and the highest prevalence of adults reporting fair or poor health in the country.

2. Over 30% of the state does not hold a high school diploma

3. The median household income is $36,864, while the median household income for the country at large is $59,039.

What differentiates the conclusions between a Marxist-Leninist trajectory of these material conditions is that a vanguard party is largely disregarded in the state or is too small and fractured to have any larger sense of statewide support. Furthermore, the support from Marxist-Leninist parties has been largely, though perhaps regrettably, superficial. Workers World and PSL have written articles supporting the teachers, to be sure, and have created a diverse range of graphics to show their solidarity with the collective struggle against capital. Yet, these gestures tend to attract only minor attention on an online space with educators.

On the other hand, collective struggles that decentralize power and return the dynamic to a community-oriented and labor-oriented structure has seen greater advances throughout the course of the strike. Over the past weekend when Dale Lee stated that a statewide walkout would commence on Thursday, February 22nd, local communities began their own decentralized organizing for food distribution centers. In Morgantown, for example, the local Monongalia County Education Association independently took on the task of setting up collection sites for food and other resources that could then be distributed to schools with the highest rates of students on free and reduced lunches. The outpouring of support led to this single organization collecting over 400 bags for lunches, 400 bags for breakfasts, and three-dozen snack bags - all with collections for only four schools total. This is without an even deeper analysis of the various food centers that have begun providing resources to local non-profits and managing distribution centers to students living in rural parts of the state where accessibility to resources is limited. In both senses, it has not been a vanguard party structure nor as movement towards social democracy that has funneled this energy into collective action, but rather, one that has a distributive model of community governance.

It remains to be seen what the result of such actions will be: union leadership could allow electoral strategies to win out and a compromise may be reached before any further action takes place; the Republican-dominated legislature could continue to stall on the issue of funding, providing for a special session to take place, costing the state even more money in the process; or, the state could begin a significant crackdown on educators and other potential dissidents in the process of maintaining "law and order." The last scenario is not unfounded, given the fact that the House of Delegates updated a 1933 law to give capitol police the ability to break up "riots and unlawful assemblages" while providing legal cover "for the death of persons in riots and unlawful assemblages." Thus, the state could effectively begin mass arrests against educators and union leadership, similar to what occurred to the IWW, CNT, and IWA, though driving them underground is unlikely. The difference is that such a direct assault would provide educators the necessary public relations to cover themselves and galvanize greater support in opposition to both capital and the defenders of capital. Thus, a direct assault by the state could essentially be the death knell to a dying institution.