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Labour Last Updated: Mar 4, 2018 - 10:01:36 AM

The New Old Politics of the West Virginia Teachers' Strike
By Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New Yorker, March 2, 2018
Mar 4, 2018 - 10:00:12 AM

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The focus of the West Virginia teachers’ strike has oscillated between teachers deserving better compensation and a more general anxiety about the strength of the state’s middle-class institutions.

On February 22nd, schoolteachers in each of West Virginia’s fifty-five counties did not show up for work. With no one to teach class, and no substitutes to call on, every school in the state closed. The lead-up to the strike happened so quickly that, as it began, its aims were a little elusive. “I can’t tell you the number of people who have said, ‘I can’t tell you how we got here—I blinked, and here we are,’ ” Stephen Wotring, the superintendent of schools in Preston County, said on Tuesday afternoon.

The teachers spoke about two kinds of issues, overlapping but distinct. Their primary grievance was that they made, by national standards, very little money, and that the governor had partly reneged on a promise to increase their pay. The other issue was more complex. West Virginia has so many vacant teaching positions that, in many schools, grades had been combined for efficiency, and teachers were teaching subjects for which they were not certified or trained. A bill had been proposed in the state legislature to lower teacher-certification standards in order to more easily fill the vacant jobs, but, to the current teachers, this bill was evidence that politicians in the state were not genuinely interested in improving the schools. On this matter, the rhetoric was especially sharp. Hand in hand with the grievance over compensation was a sense that the Appalachian middle class was in crisis.

West Virginia has the most cinematic labor history of any state in the country, and, as this week began, the schools still closed, the teachers began to channel it explicitly. Teachers’-union officials made sure to emphasize that the movement to strike had begun among teachers in the southern part of the state, the coal regions, the old union strongholds from when West Virginia was known as a labor state, not a conservative one. On Monday, the teachers staged a rally in Charleston, the state capital, at which they wore red shirts (some also wore red bandannas) to echo the chosen costume of the picketing mine workers of the Battle of Blair Mountain, in 1921, the largest strike in American history. West Virginia voted for President Trump by a huge margin in the 2016 election, but there had also been strong support for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. Among progressives, there has been hope that the state might at some point revert from its more recent conservative identity to its older pro-labor one. In the teachers’ strike, they saw a glimmer. Ken Fones-Wolf, a labor historian at West Virginia University, told me that the strike was the most important in the state since at least 1989. He said that he thought it might reflect a general turn in the state’s politics. “Do I sound too rosy?” Fones-Wolf asked, and laughed. “I’ve been wrong before.”

The most famous speaker at the Charleston rally was Cecil Roberts, the seventy-one-year-old president of the United Mine Workers of America, and a figure from a more combative era. (“He’s been jailed dozens of times!” a hype man cried out, by way of introduction.) Rough-voiced, shouty, and intent on raising the stakes, Roberts warned that the anti-union movement would try to sever the union from its leadership (“They attacked Jesus! They attacked Moses!”), and he compared the strike to West Virginia’s labor actions past: the ten thousand coal miners who marched in Logan County, in the nineteen-twenties; the two thousand, himself among them, who walked out of mines in Appalachian Virginia, in 1989, when the Pittston Coal Company cut their benefits. But there was a notable demographic difference between Roberts and his supporters from the mine workers’ union—who came to the rally wearing camo—and his schoolteacher audience, most of which was women, many of whom had brought their children. Eventually, Roberts toned it down a little. “This is not really a strike,” he said. “This is when the good people of West Virginia take back their state.”

By midday Tuesday, with the schools still closed, Christine Campbell, the state president of the American Federation of Teachers, was making the rounds at the capitol, trying to figure out what Jim Justice, the state’s six-foot-seven-inch billionaire governor, would do. She seemed to view the strike as somewhat less glorious than Roberts did, and the position of her members as precarious. West Virginia does not recognize the right of public employees to bargain collectively. There are teachers in the state, Campbell told me from the capitol, who “pick up fast-food shifts on the weekends.” The state’s teachers make forty-four thousand dollars a year on average, which ranks forty-eighth in the nation, and districts along West Virginia’s borders have seen many instructors leave for higher-paying jobs across state lines in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. “We have students who have graduated from high school without ever having had a certified math teacher,” Campbell said. She kept switching between modes—between a narrow argument that the teachers deserved better compensation and a more general anxiety about the strength of the state’s middle-class institutions. She said, “If we don’t stand up for public education, we’re going to go the way the coal miners did.”

In the past two and a half years—since the opioid epidemic announced itself as a crisis, and the 2016 Presidential campaign began in earnest—Appalachia has often been discussed in Campbell’s terms, as if the fate of the coal mines was becoming the fate of the region. The general story of a cultural crisis matched the one presented in the writer J. D. Vance’s memoir of Appalachian Ohio, “Hillbilly Elegy.” Vance’s Appalachia was a clannish, abused place in which success was resented and family relations were chaotic. Once it became obvious that the region was a center of the Trump phenomenon, arriving national political reporters saw things, at least partly, through Vance’s eyes. The Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote, “Trump’s perceived character . . . resonates in places like Appalachia where courage, country and cussedness are core values.” Liberal analysts have tended to consider the region the scene of a moral comeuppance: the U.S. for decades treated Appalachia like an internal colony, useful mostly for what could be extracted from it, and its residents reacted by supporting an ignorant racist for President.

This tone has tended to annoy people who live in the region. Last month, the Appalachian writer Elizabeth Catte published a spiky polemic with a helpfully direct title, “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.” Catte is a historian with a particular focus on photography, and part of her book is dedicated to mapping how precisely the contemporary images of the region mimic older ones. The great Life magazine spread from eastern Kentucky, in 1964, which was meant to illustrate a coming Great Society initiative, consolidated the type: “children playing in bare shacks, restless with hunger.” In November, 2016, the Huffington Post published a photographic examination of McDowell County, West Virginia, one of the poorest counties in the United States (headline: “This County Gives a Glimpse at the America That Voted Trump Into Office”), and it followed the same aesthetic: frayed beards, ancient tractors, images exclusively in black-and-white. The effect, Catte believes, is that Appalachia is always seen as stuck in some colorless and unchanging past, and populated with—to take Catte’s phrase—“decent but damaged people looking for a miracle.”

The Appalachian left is a relatively small faction (when I called Fones-Wolf, the labor historian at W.V.U., he mentioned that he was having dinner with Catte that very evening), and Catte, an officer of the Charlottesville, Virginia, chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, captures its perspective. She points out that the diversity of the region is badly underrecognized (“There are more people in Appalachia who identify as African-American than as Scots-Irish”) and emphasizes the region’s radical labor history: the mine-labor fights of Harlan County, Kentucky; the community health clinics; the training school for civil-rights organizers. “If you saw through my eyes you’d see hands in pockets and hands on guns and toes on picket lines,” she writes of Appalachia.

That doesn’t, however, fully describe the position of the West Virginia teachers, whose language is of access and opportunity, and whose efforts are to try to shrink the distance between West Virginia and the more prosperous parts of the country, rather than to provide a bristling resistance. In rural places, schools have a special function as the centers of communities that sometimes have no other obvious focal point. Teachers in these schools are “stewards of the intellectual life,” as one academic study of rural education put it. They also, sometimes, carry the burden of aspiration. “The McDowell County School System understands that your child is so much more than a test score,” an educator named Nelson Spencer wrote to parents in the county, in a letter introducing himself as their new superintendent of schools, in 2012. He went on to promise not just free lunches and dental care but also Advanced Placement courses and college and career readiness. “This county is blessed with many fine schools, but our staff is . . . working tirelessly to make them even better.”

Recently, the W.V.U. professor Erin McHenry-Sorber conducted a study of new teachers in the state who had been assigned to rural schools. The teachers selected for the study had grown up in Appalachia, but, even so, what they emphasized about their postings was the poverty they found there, the homeless children, the addicts among the parents. One new teacher in the study said, “We have a lot of parents that come to pick their kids up and are very—zombies I guess is the only way I can describe them. They look like zombies.” To these new teachers, who were now educated, middle-class Appalachians, even their own home towns seemed to recede into black-and-white. A second new teacher told the researchers, “Once I got to university town, maybe I went back, and I’m, like, ‘Holy God, this place is dying.’ ”

The strike was still in effect late Tuesday afternoon, and so Wotring, the schools superintendent of Preston County, was at his desk without a whole lot to do. Wotring grew up in Preston County—an area, just east of Morgantown, where income levels are a bit below the state average—and has worked in the school system there for thirty-six years, first as a high-school math and science teacher and then as a principal and, eventually, as a superintendent. He said the challenges that his school faces because of its rural character were mundane (the tax base is thin; Preston County has more miles of road than all but one other county in the state, and so transportation is a headache) compared to anything as intangible as the culture. “It’s not like they’re backwoods kids who don’t know anything,” Wotring said. He mentioned a former science student of his, Danny Moyer, who had gone to W.V.U., then to graduate studies at U.C.L.A., and eventually to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he had worked on the Mars rover. Talent tended to migrate out of Preston County, but that was O.K. with Wotring. “My goal is not to educate the kids so they all stay here,” he said.

Wotring’s sympathies were obviously with the teachers. His own district borders both Pennsylvania and Maryland, and keeping teachers in his school, considering the higher salaries that they could earn just a few miles away, required constant effort. He thought that what had really bothered the teachers, beyond the issues of pay and benefits, was the suggestion, from the state legislature, that vacancies could be filled by people who were not certified to teach. “One of the things they are really fighting for is to be recognized as professionals of value,” he said.

There is a condescension in the general, black-and-white view of Appalachia—the kind that bothers Catte so much. But there is also an anxiety that the region might represent only an extreme version of the national fear that the middle class might be squeezed out of existence. Wotring believed that a certain political understanding had crystallized for the teachers, a sense of where they stood. “If I really think this was fuelled by anything this year, as opposed to any other year, it’s probably been in the political culture that we find ourselves in—that everybody is willing, at this point, to stand up and state their opinion and stand for it,” he said. “People feel more entitled to do that than ever before.”

Throughout the strike, it had been hard to pin down the position of Governor Justice, a variable figure. One of the wealthiest men in the state and a longtime Republican, Justice had switched parties to run for governor in 2016 as a Democrat, before switching back last August, a decision that he announced at a rally with Trump, in Huntington. When I spoke with Campbell, the teachers’-union official, on Tuesday, she told me she believed that the governor’s interest in improving West Virginia’s schools was genuine. Still, she said, “I don’t feel like he’s really connecting the dots about how you do that.” She sounded somewhat more optimistic about Justice than her membership did. On Tuesday evening, the governor and the union leaders announced a deal to end the strike, in which the teachers would get the pay raise they wanted and the planned cuts to their benefits would be postponed by a year.

But the protests had evolved, and it wasn't so clear any longer that a pay raise could resolve them. Quite quickly, it was apparent that the union’s membership—a portion of which wanted a targeted tax on the extraction industries to fund education—would reject the deal. “I live paycheck to paycheck,” Katie Endicott, a thirty-one-year-old high-school teacher from Gilbert, told the Times. Then she recounted the program, mandated by the state’s new health-insurance program, that required teachers to download an app that would check how many steps they took each day. “If I don’t earn enough points, and if I choose not to use the app, then I’m penalized $500 at the end of the year,” she said. “People felt that was very invasive.” The union officials said that they had not expected their membership to resist the deal. Governor Justice seemed exasperated. “I’m doing what all I possibly can,” he told reporters, through the window of his official S.U.V. “I’m not king.”

The nature of Appalachia seems, at this moment, to matter very much to American politics, and so each turn in the arguments about the region has raised the stakes for the next. Vance’s description of a pathological culture provoked Catte’s account of a diverse region menaced by capital; the media’s certainty that West Virginia was Trump country deepened Roberts’s insistence that it belonged to its laborers. “Appalachia was not different from the rest of America,” the Appalachian historian Ronald Eller wrote ten years ago, in his history of the region, “Uneven Ground.” “It was in fact a mirror of what the nation was becoming.” Maybe that is the real source of the suspense, in the conflict between educators wearing red and the Trump-supporting governor: it isn’t at all obvious whether these teachers are professionals in a middle-class place or workers whose footsteps get tracked by an app, because it isn’t at all obvious what the nation is becoming.

Source:Ocnus.net 2018

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