Eric Blanc with Emily Comer and Jay O’Neal, March 6, 2018, Jacobin
On Tuesday afternoon, a deal to give all public employees in the state of West Virginia a 5 percent pay raise was passed by the legislature and signed by the governor.
A struggle that mobilized tens of thousands of workers, won widespread popular support, and was led by rank-and-file leaders, ended in a tangible victory. Confusion arose, however, as reports indicated that Republican state politicians wanted to offset the increase with cuts to social services. But though the Republicans are threatening to pay for this in part through cutting essential services, the bill itself is not tied to any such cuts.
To assess the tentative strike settlement, Jacobin’s Eric Blanc sat down with Emily Comer and Jay O’Neal — teachers and union activists in Charleston, West Virginia.
How did you hear the news about the deal?
I woke up this morning to a call from my dad that said “Emily, this shit’s big. I listened to Hoppy Kercheval [an influential conservative talk radio host] on my way to work this morning. Hoppy’s on your side. He’s saying that the Senate needs to give in so that the kids can go back to school. If Hoppy’s turned, then the Senate is going to turn.” So I woke up feeling excited and hopeful.
I was at the capitol. Around 9:45 in the morning I started getting texts from people saying that they heard on the radio that there’s some kind of press conference at ten o’ clock and that a deal had been made. Of course, I was originally skeptical. Then a Republican House delegate came up to me and said, “I worked really hard on this. And I think you’ll be happy.” But she wouldn’t tell me how much the deal was for. I said: “I hope we’re happy.”
So I went up to the crowd in front of the Senate to ask people what was going on. And all of a sudden I get a text from a teacher at my school that said: “5 percent for everyone!” Suddenly I heard cheering. I look up and see that the governor, who is a big man, was now standing in the middle of this huge crowd of teachers announcing a 5 percent raise for all public employees.
How do strikers generally feel about the deal?
Thrilled. We’re overwhelmed with emotion. I have broken down sobbing more times than I can count today. There’s probably video footage of me bawling while I’m surrounded by coworkers singing “Country Roads.” There’s almost a sense of disbelief, because for about a solid week there, we were really in unfamiliar territory. We didn’t know what was going to happen.
After watching the conference committee last night, I didn’t wake up feeling positive about anything. I was worried the bill was actually going to get kicked back down to the 2 percent. And so now I’m excited, I’m thrilled, I feel like my life won’t ever be the same again. It sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. Going back to the classroom won’t be the same now.
And what a lot of people have already forgotten is how much we have already won. Even before the walkouts began, in his hope to avoid a strike, the governor dropped his push for catastrophic changes to PEIA, such as the total family income requirement and the Go365 wellness program. The government was forced to keep the PEIA insurance premiums and deductibles at their current level. Also, because of the strike, we were able to ensure that a lot of bad education bills weren’t able to get passed. The charter school bill didn’t go anywhere, and additional anti-union bills like “payroll protection” all were dropped.
What do you think brought about this victory?
The first thing I would say is that West Virginians came together en masse and held each other up. My colleagues and I leaned on each other heavily — emotionally, for quick information, for everything. Our communities leaned on each other to feed kids, to provide childcare. Parents were patient and understanding, and that’s been a remarkable thing. The most amazing part of this struggle has been the real sense of community across West Virginia.
For years people have tried to contact their legislators. They tried going to PEIA hearings to say this is wrong. But nothing changed. People just finally took action. Over 30,000 West Virginians said enough is enough.
Do we know where the funding for the raise is coming from?
Not yet. There are rumors. And many teachers have expressed their worry that this might be funded through cuts to Medicaid and other essential services. If that’s the plan that they want to push, it goes against the stance we’ve taken from the very beginning. Our message has always been that we want to reverse corporate tax cuts. We want to raise the gas severance tax so that we can prioritize the needs of the people of West Virginia who are struggling. We have demonstrated through action that our priority is to take care of our kids who are living in poverty.
The legislature has made it clear that they are not interested in helping poor people. They are only interested in working for their wealthy donors. So I think that our next step in this movement should be to unite not just with other teachers and public employees, but with the families of our students who are living in poverty.
But getting Mitch Carmichael and the Senate Republicans to agree to 5 percent not just for us but for all public employees is a huge victory. We have to take that win. If we say “no deal,” we lose everything we have worked so hard for.
If they try to fund this through cuts, we know what our message has to be. From day one, we’ve said we want corporate welfare reversed and a tax raise on natural gas — but they keep trying to ignore this demand. We’ve been out here across the state making sure our students are fed, while they’re trying to cut SNAP benefits.
The public knows all of this, we have to keep reminding them to join this fight with us. But that will happen after we go back to school.
One of the big demands that hasn’t been met yet is a fix for PEIA. What are the next steps to win this?
There is a task force set up by the governor and it’s required to meet by March 15. People are still very skeptical, but there are going to be literally thousands of eyes watching everything they do. And there will be a lot of pressure from all of us to get a permanent funding source for PEIA. This needs to be a raise on the severance tax for natural gas.
What are the main lessons that can be drawn for people across the country and the world who have been watching your struggle?
First of all, if we can do it, anybody can do it. It’s not like we’re a special group of activist teachers who have been studying for twenty years about how to mobilize the working class. We’re not.
Another one of the big lessons I’ve learned is that you need to organize people around a specific issue. For us, it was the insurance. That’s a big-tent issue that affected one in seven West Virginians. It meant that we had a large base of support.
For a successful mass movement, people don’t have to agree on partisan politics, on religion, or anything else for that matter. But they do have come together and fight in solidarity around a shared issue. We’ve learned that people will push the other differences aside in the name of solidarity.
If you have enough working people who are pushed to the breaking point, and who are angry about a specific grievance, then it’s the duty of activists to let them know that they deserve better — and that their lives can get better if they take action on that issue. If you lead the way, people will respond.
Emily Comer is a teacher and union activist in Charleston, WV.
Jay O’Neal is a middle-school teacher and union activist in Charleston, WV.
Eric Blanc is a doctoral student in the sociology department at New York University. He is the author of the forthcoming monograph, Anti-Colonial Marxism: Oppression & Revolution in the Tsarist Borderlands, 1881-1917.