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West Virginia Workers And the Taste of Solidarity

There’s a phrase I remember from interviewing West Virginia miners wives. “When the whistle blows, everybody goes.”  In an accident down the mine, anyone’s loved one could have been hurt, and so everyone turned out.

Today our tragedies are more discreet. Neoliberalism’s done its best to privatize our problems.

Education, employment, wages, housing, health, these are things the private sector likes to negotiate with us in private. Our rights, our privileges, where we live, our access to stuff is often a matter of how well we are able to negotiate with bosses and banks and cable companies and school administrators.

Another way of looking at our much-celebrated individualism is as aloneness. Our lot in life is our own; our troubles, our own fault.  

When West Virginia teachers declared victory with a 5 percent raise and returned to their classrooms March 7th, they modeled something different. Their organizing and their thirteen-day strike not only forced the state legislature to raise their meager pay, but also to back off a slate of neoliberal proposals including for charter schools, and an anti-seniority bill, preventing payroll deduction of union dues.

Revitalizing an old history of worker solidarity in their state, they extracted a pledge from their Republican Governor, Jim Justice not to steal from Medicaid to pay the public employees’ raise. They stood not just for teachers. And not just teachers stood with them. For all those days out, strikers won't be losing pay because sympathetic school superintendents closed schools and agreed that the lost days could be made up.

Now the Oklahoma Education Association has warned it will close schools statewide beginning April 2 if there’s no action on wages. In Arizona, a #REDFORED Facebook group started this past Sunday, that had over 13,000 members by the following Wednesday.

The last uprising for public employees I saw like this was in Madison Wisconsin in 2011. It didn’t win, but it did mobilize a lot of people, and give them a taste of defiance and old school solidarity.

The West Virginia teachers have blown a whistle. Who’s going to go? We’re about to find out.  

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