‘A Remarkable Victory for the Labor Movement’

Janine Jackson interviewed Mike Elk about the West Virginia school workers strike for the March 9, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Payday Report: What the West Virginia Victory Means for Labor

Payday Report (3/7/18)

Janine Jackson: A deal was signed giving all public employees in West Virginia a 5 percent pay raise, after a nine-day work stoppage by teachers and school staffers that shut down every school in the state. More than 20,000 teachers and 13,000 staffers walked out February 22, mainly over healthcare costs, despite the fact that they had no legal right to strike.

And a funny thing happened: The public supported them, and they won. The teachers and staffers, we understand, are feeling joy and relief. Observers around the country seem to be feeling something else: inspired.

Mike Elk is senior labor reporter and founder of Payday Report. He writes also for the Guardian. He joins us now by phone from Pittsburgh. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Mike Elk.

Mike Elk: So great to be on the show with you, Janine. I’m such a big fan of your work.

JJ: Thank you. Well, this deal in West Virginia is not perfect, particularly in terms of how things will be funded, and we’ll talk about that. But first, it’s important to claim victories, even as we push for more. Could you just talk a bit about why the West Virginia teachers action is meaningful, is significant, right now?

ME: Well, I think it shows a couple of things. Right now, the US Supreme Court is taking up a case called Janus, and what that would do is drastically reduce the ability of unions to collect dues off of all their members. It would allow people in certain workplaces in the public sector to opt out of paying dues. It could hurt unions.

Mike Elk (photo: Payday Report)

Mike Elk: “What West Virginia showed was that, hey, the law can be against you and you can still win.” (photo: Payday Report)

So there’s been all this alarmist rhetoric that, “Oh, unions are going to go under, blah blah blah.” When, in the South, you’ve had unions that don’t have collective bargaining rights, that don’t even have dues checkoff at all, that are in right-to-work states—that have been winning victories for decades. And I think what West Virginia showed was that, hey, the law can be against you and you can still win. So it was a real shot of energy to the labor movement in that way.

I also think it was really an expression of #MeToo in the workplace. I don’t think this has been covered as much, but nationally, about 79 percent of teachers are women. One of the big issues that really upset a lot of women in this struggle for a contract was that, in order to get $500 a year off of your health insurance cost, you had to participate in a wellness program where you had to wear a Fitbit that monitored your every move. A lot of women really objected to this, that this was invasive, that this was invading women’s bodies, that this was the male state legislature refusing to give a pay raise, and wanting to do this terribly invasive thing.

And so I think this is also a big victory for the #MeToo movement in the workplace, and could inspire other types of public-sector strikes. Already, Pittsburgh teachers were in union talks while the West Virginia strike was going on, and Pittsburgh is about 45 minutes from West Virginia. We share a lot of the same media market. And so last week, last Monday, they voted to strike. And what winded up happening was they voted to strike on Monday, and gave notice they would go out on Friday. By that Wednesday, the school district folded and gave them everything they wanted.

So it was already showing an effect here in Pittsburgh, and now today in Oklahoma, the teachers union announced there that they were going to go out on strike on April 2.

So how far this thing goes is really unclear, but it’s been a long time since the labor movement had a victory this big, on this big of a scale, a mass walkout over an entire state. And even though they didn’t get everything they wanted with health insurance plans, they put themselves in a position where they gained leverage and support. So they were able to get a 5 percent pay raise, not just for teachers, but for all public employees, which helped them out in terms of gaining more public support, because initially that wasn’t on the table at all. The other public employees were going to get 2 percent less.

They got a 19-month freeze to all out-of-pocket healthcare costs, which is a big victory. And then they got set up a taskforce to study how to fix the state health insurance program. It’s supposed to have a report presented by October, and this taskforce will have many members of the teachers union on it.

Teachers on strike in West Virginia (image: MSNBC)

And it’s important that that’s coming in October, because in October, the state legislature comes back into session, and then in November, there are legislative elections. So if no action is taken, it really puts the issue front and center; it puts the union in a position to fight another day, rather than going on a multi-week strike, where they might lose support.

You know, a strike is a very difficult thing to maintain, and these teachers did a great job of doing community outreach, of setting up daycares, of setting up lunch programs, making sure that children were provided for during the strike, and keeping public support on their side. So it’s really a remarkable victory for the labor movement.

JJ: I was going to ask about that public support, which—I wasn’t actually sure how deep it went, how strong it was; I heard it referenced. But do people seem to be seeing the big picture? In other words, there didn’t seem to be this splitting of teachers’ interests versus parents’ interests, or versus students’ interests. And part of this was the union workers’ positive effort to hold on to that public support, but do you think there’s a shift in the wind, in some degree, or is it special to that area—that there would be such support for a strike like this?

Logan Defenders

Anti-union militia, Logan County, West Virginia, 1921

ME: I think a combination of things. I think there’s somewhat of a shift in the wind. But at the same time, I mean, it is West Virginia; it’s a state with a very deep, radical labor history. You know, these teachers were talking about how they had seen their teachers walk out in 1990, about how their grandparents had walked out of the coal mines in 1969, when 40,000 coal miners went on strike demanding black lung benefits. So there’s a history of mass walkouts in the political consciousness of West Virginia, going all the way back to the ’20s. Further than that, going back to the Mine Wars.

And there’s always been this history, so what’s unique—and I think why the public supported them so much in West Virginia—is because the situation is so bad. There’s something like 700 vacancies in West Virginia schools. It’s not uncommon for kids to have three or four teachers for one subject in one year, or to have classes that simply turn into substitute periods. I was looking at a map of West Virginia, and it was showing that over 60 percent of students in the southern counties of West Virginia, over 60 percent of those students when they go away to college have to take remedial courses. So people know, on a very deep level, that the education system is broken in West Virginia. And there’s a very deep, cultural sense of, you know, our history is engaging in these kind of radical struggles.

So the public support, from what I saw out on picket lines, in terms of people stopping and honking the horns, was very, very high, and there wasn’t ever a real campaign of angry school parents against them. Actually, the PTA endorsed the effort. So there wasn’t significant opposition. And as you can see, the Republican governor and the Republican state legislators were forced to fold on their positions very quickly, because they had no political space to stand on.

JJ: Let me ask you about one of the kind of asterisks, which is that there was some hope, wasn’t there, that the pay increases and the improvements on the insurance plan—which was teachers’ big concern—that those might be funded with a tax on natural gas?

ME: Yes.

JJ:  So what happened with that?

ME: That got nowhere. Instead, there was this provision that there was something like $58 million in projected revenue, when they changed their revisions. So instead of doing that, they cut the budget in other areas, mainly because the natural gas industry doesn’t want to see fracking taxed.

JJ:  And I noticed in something that I think that you had written, the note that the coal folks, including the governor, their negligence in taxpaying has something to do with the cutbacks in the first place.

ME: Well, yeah. Jim Justice, the governor of West Virginia, owes something like $15 million in taxes in six different states. These are big, big landholders, these coal and gas companies. And  they often don’t pay their taxes, for legal reasons, and nobody cracks down on them. And so there’s a huge issue of not getting enough revenue in a place like West Virginia.

JJ:  Let’s talk about media. Traditionally, corporate media’s antipathy to labor actions is almost comic. They pit workers against consumers, they stress the hardship, or the traffic tie-ups or whatever, that are caused by strikes. And then you add to that the lack of love for the public sector, you know, “teachers are dumbing down our kids,” and don’t get them started on the postal service. I guess I just expected worse coverage. But is it that there was relatively little national coverage till late in the day? What did you make of media’s treatment of the West Virginia teachers action?

ME: A lot of different things. I think it showed the need for a professional labor press corps. Not just in the corporate media, but also in the left press. There was very little reporting from a national perspective, where national publications were actually sending reporters to West Virginia. I think Dave Jamieson from the Huffington Post went; I went. I think someone from The Intercept went. But not that many national publications did.

However, CNN really caught up to the ballgame. And I think the coverage was much more, you know, there were flaws in it, in terms of details and things like that. But the coverage was much more sympathetic.

Rally for West Virginia school workers (cc photo: Rich McGervey)

Rally for West Virginia school workers (cc photo: Rich McGervey)

And I think that really has to relate back to the huge wave of pro-union sentiment you see now in the media industry, over the last three and a half years. I was trying to organize a union back at Politico in 2015, and the Washington Post at the time wrote this article called “Why Don’t Internet Journalists Organize,” and it basically argued—the Washington Post—that organizing will never happen in the media industry.

But then, five months later, Gawker happened. I wasn’t really involved in that. But after Gawker, there were a lot of conversations, that had already been taking place prior to Gawker, but that were amplified and given support. And what we found, when we organized in the media industry, is that when people get coverage, they do organize, because they get support; they know they have public support.

And so, over the last three years, we’ve seen something like 36 media outlets—or some number, it was above 30—organize. I lost count. And we’ve seen major ones like the LA Times organize, as well as Mic, and Vice, and Vox, and HuffPost. We’ve seen a lot of big outlets organize. And so there’s a big pro-union sentiment in the industry right now. And I think that’s starting to play out in some of this reporting that’s happening.

I think a lot of the media realize, also, that they missed the boat on Bernie in 2016; they don’t want to miss the boat again. So I don’t think we saw that same kind of media coverage.

On the other end, there’s a trend in the left press that I like to call “yuppiesplaining.” There’s this term out there, “mansplaining,” about when men explain obvious things to women; there’s this term “whitesplaining” when white people explain what it’s like to be a person of color to people of color. But my friend Jamie was joking that there ought to be “yuppiesplaining.”

You know, I come from a very blue-collar background, in coal country, a union household. And there’s this trend now in the left press, I think, to write these really elitist narratives of labor struggles. And so we started seeing all these labor stories in the left press that wouldn’t even quote workers, that were drawing all these big-picture analyses of what was happening, and then lecturing people on, “Well, you have to understand the whole history of West Virginia.” And it just wasn’t really rooted at all in the story of what people were doing.

So I think we both—in the corporate media and in the left press—have a long way to go to really developing a better professional labor press corps, because it is a specialized area, it does require a lot of knowledge, and it does really require you to go out of your way and actually quote workers—just not write hot takes, but actually get out into the field, have lunch with people, spend a lot of time with people, and get a sense of what the feeling is like among organizing. Because you can’t understand organizing over the phone; you can only really understand it when you’re out there with workers.

JJ:  Your latest pieces have been talking about a possible catch-on effect, or the inspiration that the West Virginia strike is having. We talked about in Oklahoma, for example; I’ve also heard, well, in today’s headlines, Arizona teachers, maybe Kentucky teachers. And I think it’s not just kind of, “Oh, there’s an example, they did it; we can do it.” It’s also maybe even a more literal, “There are people out there who will have our backs if we do this,” sort of touching on what you were just saying.

I don’t know if people can really imagine how, if they haven’t done it, how frightening it is to go on strike, you know? Even if it’s very official and sanctioned, it’s not as if you just eat peanut butter for a week and then you win. There’s a lot of untold story in just how difficult it is, and how up against it people are, and that’s why solidarity is really like a material resource to people involved in these things.

ME: Oh, yeah. And we were out on the picket line in Wheeling, West Virginia, on the first day. And the teachers out there were very nervous to come out. You know, they weren’t really certain what kind of support they would get, if people would be flipping them off…. They knew they had a lot of support, but people always think they have a lot of support, because we live in silos. And on that first day, there was just so much support, and then it kept building and building.

But if that strike had gone on for another week or two, would there have been that same level of enthusiasm? It’s very tough to maintain strikes, walkouts, for a long period of time; people get bored. You know, you can only stand so much on the picket line and chant. These things are very tough to do, and tough to maintain.

So it will be interesting to see what happens in Oklahoma, because we’re entering a new space of organizing, which I think we’re only beginning to understand. And I know that might sound cliché, but social media has really shaken things up, in terms of the positive feedback we can provide to people. Particularly in West Virginia, they would go on Facebook, they would look at what all their friends and neighbors were posting. And they knew people had their back.

Ten years ago, you didn’t have that. You know, however the corporate media covered you was how you pretty much thought the world was like, outside of the people you talked to on a daily basis. So that’s really changing the dynamic, and, I think, this coming at the same time that students are walking out, and there’s a general sense among a lot of people fed up with the Trump era, of just wanting to shut it down.

JJ:  We’ve been speaking with Mike Elk, senior labor reporter at Payday Report; they’re online at PaydayReport.com. His article, “West Virginia Teachers’ Triumph Offers Fresh Hope for US Workers’ Rights,” appeared in the Guardian. Mike Elk, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

ME: Thanks, Janine.


This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.