'This Is in Our Blood': How Striking West Virginians Made History--Again.

AuthorWeber, Brandon

The hills of West Virginia are steeped in a sense of isolation. It's a place that these days doesn't normally allow the kind of organizing that happened this year during the strike by teachers and service workers. Yet it did happen, and, in fact, it's happened here before.

Many of the teachers and school support staff who took part in this strike have ties going back more than 100 years to the unions that were involved in the West Virginia mine wars. They learned what solidarity is about from their cousins, uncles, grandmothers.

"In a room of 200 teachers and support staff in Mingo County, probably every single one of them has relatives who were in the mine wars," says Katie Endicott, a high school English teacher in Mingo County. "All of these people had relatives who struck at various mines since then. This is in our blood. To cross the picket line or simply give up would be a slap in the face to our ancestors; they had shown us what was possible."

The West Virginia strike by teachers and support staff began on February 22 and ended March 6. The walkout, which encompassed all of West Virginia's fifty-five counties, included about 20,000 teachers and 13,000 school service employees, making it one of the biggest labor actions in the United States in recent years.

In 2016, West Virginia ranked forty-eighth in the nation in terms of teacher pay, paying just $45,622 in 2016 compared to a national average of $58,353.

In the end, the strikers were victorious, helping to inspire similar mass strikes by teachers in Colorado, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky, all of which were also to some measure successful. But while the West Virginia strike drew national attention, most news outlets missed several key components of its success.

For one thing, fully a third of the workers involved were not teachers. They were bus drivers, cooks, custodial staff, teacher aides, and much more. In fact, bus drivers made the entire strike possible.

When the unions representing teachers and support staff were debating going out on strike, bus drivers spoke up. The bus drivers, says Endicott, had laid down the law: "No, you don't understand. You don't get to have school if we don't drive the buses. We've already made the choice; it's cute that you think you can make this call, but we already have."

Another underreported factor: The state's school superintendents endorsed the goals of the teachers and support staff. "There's already a shortage of teachers in this state,"...

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