From Coal Miners to Teachers: West Virginia Continues to Lead Radical Labor Struggle in the U.S.

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For decades, West Virginia has been at the forefront of labor activism in the United States. As the state’s teachers continue their historic strike, which has shut down every single West Virginia school, we look at the history of the labor activism in the Mountain State. We speak with Jay O’Neal, a middle school teacher and a union activist in Charleston, West Virginia. And we speak with Mike Elk, senior labor reporter at Payday Report. His most recent piece is titled “West Virginia Teachers’ Strike Fever Starting to Spread to Other States.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, last week, Democracy Now! spoke to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, about what’s happening in West Virginia, the teachers and staff strike there.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: There’s no collective bargaining in West Virginia. So, it is whatever—we’d lobby the Legislature and the governor, and we got to a deal, so to speak, of increasing salaries by 5 percent this year—you know, it is not enough, because of what West Virginia teachers make, and they need to make more—and to actually freeze the premiums for about 18 months. The problem is, the bills have not actually gone through a very hostile House and Senate, and no one trusts the governor. And so, there—until some of these bills go through and there’s a task force that actually takes on these huge premium hikes over the long term, you have a lot of confusion.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. I wanted to go back to Jay O’Neal. This whole issue of West Virginia being in the forefront historically of labor strikes, many of the teachers of today are children or grandchildren of mine workers in West Virginia. Could you talk about this sense of history that the teachers are participating in and what you expect to happen in the next few days?

JAY O’NEAL: Sure. If you see videos or clips of people here, you’ll see a lot of teachers wearing red bandannas around their necks. And that kind of goes back to some of the early history here of labor activism. We had a thing called the West Virginia mine wars in the 19-teens and early 1920s. It kind of culminated in something called the Battle of Blair Mountain, which was the largest armed uprising in United States history outside of the Civil War. A lot of the miners then wore red bandannas around their necks. And that’s—some people think that’s where the term “redneck” came from. So you’re seeing that memory here and that coming up again. And as was kind of hinted earlier, almost every West Virginian knows somebody who’s been on strike—parents, grandparents, friends, aunts, uncles, just somebody. So it’s a rich history here, and people know what it means to be on strike.

As far as what happens next, basically, we have an executive order from the governor for a task force for our insurance. So, as Randi Weingarten said, we’re hopeful that they can get the costs under control. The biggest issue right now is the 5 percent raise. The Senate lowered it to 4 percent. The House said, “No, we still want 5 percent.” And the governor said he supports 5 percent. So we’re waiting on a conference committee right now. It could be meeting at any time to try to iron that out and hopefully give us the 5 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read the tweet of the acclaimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote, “A lot of children depend on free school lunches, so the West Virginia teachers made food packages for them before going on strike and have continued to try to feed them. This is our dystopian welfare state: severely underpaid teachers trying to keep poverty-stricken kids alive.” This is quite amazing, Jay. As you sit there in the Capital building, in the reception area, what do you see happening? Eight days out, over 270,000 kids not going to school now, 33,000 teachers and the staff that are supporting you in this.

JAY O’NEAL: You know, we’ve had a lot of community support. As she was talking about, teachers all over the state have worked to make sure kids are not going hungry. I know at my school something like 70 backpacks full of food were sent home with kids. We also sent home flyers for churches and community centers that had organized food and meals for them, because that’s the state we’re in, you know? We are in a high-poverty state. Most of our kids depend on breakfast and lunch coming from school. So, we’re in the situation where we feel like, as teachers, we still have to make sure our students, you know, are being fed during this time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I just wanted to ask Mike Elk one question. West Virginia, obviously, is generally known these days as Trump country, yet the president hasn’t made any statement about what’s going on in West Virginia. Could you talk about that?

MIKE ELK: Well, you know, I think it’s interesting, this idea of Trump country, because while a lot of these folks at the top of the ballot have been voting Republican, down the ballot they still vote Democratic. And, you know, even if you get into southwestern Pennsylvania nearby, you’ll hear a lot of very socially conservative folks who are still very socially conservative with the national party, but still very economically populist. And I think Trump knows of the amount of support these teachers are getting, that he doesn’t want to go against his base in this situation, because—you know, I don’t know the breakdown necessarily of where all these teachers voted, but West Virginia did vote by nearly 70 percent for, you know, Donald Trump. So for him to not want to talk about this shows you that he’s really scared of taking on unions head on. You know, he’s obviously taking on unions in a backdoor approach at the NLRB and in Congress and in other ways, but he doesn’t want to do a full-scale Scott Walker assault, because he knows that’s his base in places like Ohio and in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there but, of course, continue to follow these strikes. Jay O’Neal, middle school teacher on strike in Charleston, West Virginia, speaking to us from the state Capitol building. Mike Elk of Payday Report, we’ll link to your reports. And Priya Gopal, speaking to us from Cambridge, a university lecturer there who is on strike, a member of the University and College Union.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, last night, the Oscars, was it historic in this #MeToo, #TimesUp moment? Six women win awards, 33 men. We’ll be joined by the founder of #OscarsSoWhite. Does that continue to be true? And more. Stay with us.

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