West Virginia teachers aren’t afraid. Here’s a group that isn’t even legally allowed to strike, but that didn’t scare off a massive statewide walkout.
The teachers, 75% of which are women, have been fired up by the Women’s March, taking to the streets with joyous joking signs, sporting animal costumes and confronting energy industry Oligarchs who rule the state. Women have always been woven into the history of the West Virginia labor victories, most notably the coal minor uprisings of the 1920s when female hero’s like Mary Harris Jones, known as ‘Mother,’ and the ‘Minors angel,’ are legendary. Today the teachers wear red bandanas to honor the history of coal miners and are joined by students, minors, bus drivers, and service workers.
It’s not just about the money. Yes, West Virginia teachers are seeking a 5% raise, something easy for naysayers to criticized on the surface while they ignore the other issues. It’s no wonder this raise alone has been the media’s focus, when a common tactic to delegitimize unions is to pit the poor against each other and cause resentment that someone with a ‘good’ job is uppity enough to ask for ‘more.’ Teachers are trying to raise awareness that in West Virginia they confront abject poverty and a spiking opioid epidemic in the classroom. West Virginia is 49th in median income, and opioid deaths are three times the national average. Three times!
The 4th highest unemployment rate and the opioid crisis have put demands on teachers that go far beyond teaching. It’s common for teachers to feed kids and stock clean, warm clothing for students out of their own pocket. Teachers are dealing with kids being raised by grandparents, whose parents are deep in addiction. Many kids may not even be lucky enough to have those grandparents. In one case a teacher describes a child with ADD whose parents steal the kid’s medication. Teacher Karla Hilliard said “ but then there are the small things… they just need someone to care about them and love them.“
Emulating the coal miners strikes that were intersectional before we even had that word, teachers in West Virginia are confronting powerful forces with the truth about poverty. Not an easy battle in a state where the Republican Governor Jim Justice is a second generation coal billionaire. It’s all pretty inspiring.
By Being Liberal contributor: Sarah Ficca