Photo Copyright NBC News
Pete Seeger sings this classic union song in 1981. Which Side Are You On?
The central Appalachians have been a hot bed of union activity for more than 100 years. The history of West Virginia is full of stories about the battle to unionize the coal mines, and armed battles that took place to enable workers to organize and gain a measure of power against the forces of capital. At the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, the US government actually bombed positions held by miners as part of the armed standoff. Eventually, the victory of the United Mine Workers was recognized, and the union became a symbol of worker solidarity and evidence of the continual struggle between management and labor.
Still, after the heyday of the union movement, over time the antipathy of the capitalist class toward unions gained more sway, especially with the general prosperity that evolved in the coal fields. Entire mining companies proudly declared themselves as non-union operations. The A.T. Massey company, led by the notorious Don Blankenship, was famous for breaking unions at their mines. Indeed, even in 2018, Don Blankenship is running for Senate in West Virginia fresh off of his stay in a Federal prison, claiming that he is a miner’s safety champion, as he runs ads extolling his generosity and the commitment to safety that Massey mines held. It was the government’s fault that 29 men died in a Massey mine, not management! Nowhere is it so evident that unions are far weaker than they were, reduced as it is to a faint whisper of their influence a century ago.
Which is why it is so surprising that the events of the past two weeks in West Virginia are resonating with the echoes of history in the hills around Charleston and throughout the state. Teachers in West Virginia walked off of their jobs beginning February 22, and as of March 3, have not agreed to return to work. This strike is not against a capitalist company, though. This strike is aimed at the Legislature of West Virginia, and Governor Jim Justice, who ironically is a coal magnate with mines throughout Appalachia. Over the past decade, the Legislature has reduced or eliminated a series of taxes in the state. Some of these taxes were regressive, like the sales tax on food. Some tax reductions were aimed at improving the business environment. But the net result was to reduce tax revenues by several hundred millions of dollars per year, and the promise of new businesses coming to take advantage of an improved business climate has not closed the revenue gap. Then, several years ago, the eastern steam coal market collapsed, as exports shrunk, and more coal-fired power plants closed down rather than comply with regulations aimed at minimizing the health and environmental consequences of coal combustion. A surfeit of natural gas from fracking also convinced utility companies that coal was not part of their future. Severance tax collections fell by hundreds of millions of dollars.
So for several years, West Virginia has dealt with tax revenues that declined over time, and this has necessitated on-going cuts in state programs and government spending. The deplorable state of this state’s highways bears witness to the sustained neglect of state services. The teachers of this state were squeezed from two directions. First, their base pay as set by the state, has not risen for multiple years. Second, the state-run health care insurance has repeatedly raised rates and deductibles, like most health insurance has over this decade. The general increase in rates was exacerbated this year by an ill-advised proposal that was to charge employees for health insurance based upon total family wage income, rather than by the employee wage. So a teacher who would have a moderate premium based upon their state salary, might be subject to pay twice as much if they had a spouse who had income but used the state health insurance. State teachers could foresee their pay going down to cover these premiums in a period of limited pay increases.
Teachers in this state are in essence fighting a proxy war for all state and local employees and retirees. All state employees are covered by the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA). So whatever changes that the teachers can cause, will apply to all of those in the state who are using PEIA.
This year, frustration boiled over. The proposed family income change, and other legislation aimed at diminishing teacher rights, collided with a minor pay raise proposal. For the first year since Republicans expelled the 80 year reign of the Democrats in the Legislature in 2014, there appeared to be growth in tax revenue projections. Governor Justice and the Legislators proposed a magnificent 5% pay raise, with the pay rates to be increased by 2% the first year, and 1% each of the next 3 years. No change was proposed in the PEIA rate structure.
Teachers rose up in rebellion. The job action finally began on February 22, and since that time, the steps of the Capitol Building have been covered by thousands of teachers with the #55Strong motto on shirts and signs (West Virginia has 55 counties). The chambers of the legislature have been packed, and the members of the legislature have been heckled with the calls of “DO YOUR JOBS”, and “WE WILL, WE WILL, VOTE YOU OUT!” echoing inside of the Capitol rotunda. It has been a remarkable scene reminiscent of the days of yesteryear, when the miners who were on strike became known as rednecks due to their use of red bandannas around their necks. Some of the current teachers are proudly wearing red bandannas now in honor of their labor past.
How will this end? At this writing, it is uncertain. The State Senate is maintaining its prerogative to slow track a bill aimed at granting a one year 5% raise, thanks to an opportunistic rise in revenue projections that just happened to show up. Teachers have said that it’s not the pay that’s the biggest problem, it is the funding for PEIA. As often happens once a conflict erupts, neither side is willing to budge, and the way out of the abyss is hard to see at this time.
Photo copyright Jed Ward.