West Virginia teacher tells how her strike sparked a national uprising
In the dead of winter a spark lit in the mountains of West Virgini's Mingo County resulted in this outpouring of teachers at the state capital. The resulting fire spread to teacher uprisings in other states across the country. | Chris Dorst/AP

WASHINGTON—A small group of teachers in a mountainous corner of West Virginia decided they and their students had had enough.

They acted. They acted despite the fact that their own union leaders warned they were endangering their own careers.

Their action nevertheless was the spark that lit a fire that spread from coast to coast, a fire that can only be described as a successful united national uprising of teachers, students, and community.

It all started with 249 teachers and school staffers in Mingo County, W. Va. And by the time it ended – with successes from coast to coast – teachers and staff and parents and students had risen up, struck, demanded and got more funds for school repairs, new textbooks, and higher pay for the educators. In many cases, they won these concessions even from recalcitrant Republican governors and legislatures in red and so-called right-to-work states.

“We did it because we had had it,” says Katie Endicott, a teacher and a member of the West Virginia Education Association.

Endicott described here earlier this week how the teacher strikes began in her county and spread rapidly throughout the Mountaineer State. She was in town Nov. 14 accepting an award from the Economic Policy Institute. The award recognized the West Virginia teachers for their triumphant struggle for justice.

“How did it start in this small tiny, forgotten place?” One reason was teachers were mad. Democrat-turned-Republican Gov. Jim Justice offered teachers a one percent pay hike and health care premium hikes that would actually cut pay by 11 percent. Justice wanted to obliterate pensions, too, in favor of 401(k)s. “And he said we should be thankful” for that pay hike. “But one percent wouldn’t cut it for us.”

“The second reason was that we have a rich tradition” of union activism in Mingo, site of the infamous 1922 “Battle of Blair Mountain” where local police and sheriff’s deputies fired on Mine Workers forced to strike over low pay and deadly working conditions. They killed dozens.

Everyone in that meeting room at Mingo Central High School, where Endicott teaches, “had a father, or a grandfather, or a brother, or an uncle” in the Mine Workers. “This is in our DNA as a labor movement – of standing up to power. We felt it was our duty to continue in their footsteps.”

It was in Endicott’s own DNA, too. Her mother, also a teacher, took her to a picket line during West Virginia’s last statewide teachers strike in 1990. Endicott, age 4, carried a sign on that picket line.

So the rank-and-file teachers and staffers called the emergency meeting in Mingo Central High School where Endicott teaches. Word got around to neighboring Wyoming, Logan and McDowell Counties. McDowell, though Endicott didn’t say so, is important because its teachers and staffers are members of the American Federation of Teachers’ West Virginia affiliate. AFT is the nation’s other big teachers’ union.

“We’re a family, and if we stand up, our brothers and sisters” in those counties will, too, Endicott thought. But she wasn’t sure…until the next morning.

“If you have a spark, it can be fanned into a flame,” she told the EPI crowd. Endicott got up at the Mingo meeting, brushed off the cautions of local union leaders and declared: “Who’s willing to stand with us? Every single hand went up, and some people put up two.”

“We called it FedUp Friday” and walked out. So did the other three counties. So did their students. Parents joined in. One student told Endicott: “Don’t you dare come back to the classroom until you get everything.” Due to low pay, another despaired of ever teaching in West Virginia, which she desperately wanted. After the teachers won, “Now I can stay home.”

Striking teachers demonstrate in Arizona. | Ross D. Franklin/AP

“We knew it was the opening shot,” Endicott said of the Mingo vote, but they didn’t know how much outside support they’d get. Her husband, also a teacher, got a cell phone text message the next morning that four other counties’ teachers and staffers – including Logan, McDowell, and Wyoming – had walked. “Then eight. Then 16. Then 40. Then all 55.”

The community pitched in, too, and not just by bringing food and drink to the picket line. On Feb. 2, the Mingo teachers and staffers were scheduled to drive dozens of miles over West Virginia’s twisting mountain roads to a mass demonstration at the state capital building in Charleston – and there was a heavy snowfall and the roads were clogged.

“The Department of Highways sent me a text: ‘We’ll get you there. We plowed it.’” Not just the teachers drove to Charleston. So did the parents. So did her students.

“’I’m a coal miner.’ ‘I’m a social worker,’ people told me. ‘We stand up for you.’” And when legislators tried to duck meetings, Endicott replied: “You will hear my voice today – loud and clear.”

So did the teachers in other states. As Justice and the legislature were forced to backtrack after mass demonstrations – rescinding the health care hike, enacting a 5 percent pay hike for all state employees along with the teachers and staff, and dropping the 401(k) conversion – the Mingo teachers knew teachers in other states were watching.

“At the end, we linked arms as we surrounded the capitol and shouted ‘West Virginia first! Oklahoma next!” They were right, followed by successful teacher walkouts – with working conditions, aged books, decrepit buildings, and low pay as the keys to the fights – in those two states, plus Arizona, Kentucky and Colorado. The lesson Endicott took from all of this, she said: the importance of solidarity.

“Those subsequent strikes show we have witnessed the power of voice,” she said. “One voice can produce an echo. Many voices can produce a roar. And a roar cannot be silenced, it cannot be tamed – and it cannot be stopped.”

“On a cold night in January, there was a spark in the mountains of Mingo and it spread to Arizona and Oklahoma and Kentucky. And it will not fade as we as workers continue to declare for our rights.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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