Lessons From West Virginia

A massive teacher strike shows what “working class” really means.

West Virginia teachers, students and supporters hold signs on a Morgantown street as they continue their strike on March 2, 2018 in Morgantown, West Virginia.
West Virginia teachers, students, and supporters hold signs on a Morgantown street as they continue their strike on Friday in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The biggest story in the country that doesn’t involve Donald Trump is happening in West Virginia, where teachers are in the second week of a strike that has closed schools in all 55 counties of the state. Around 33,000 teachers and school service employees are on the picket lines, and thousands of workers have rallied in person at the state capitol in Charleston demanding higher pay, lower health care costs, and better conditions in their schools and classrooms. Teachers in West Virginia are among the lowest paid in the nation and face rapidly rising premiums that wipe out their modest pay increases.

Striking is illegal for public sector workers in West Virginia, but in the absence of collective bargaining—which is also forbidden for state workers—a strike is the only choice for teachers who want fair treatment, decent wages, and a full hearing from state leaders. This strike has showcased the potent organizational skills of West Virginia’s teachers, as well as the remarkable solidarity of these workers and their communities, who have gone so far as to provide meals for children who would have received them at school.

The strike also shines a light on the shifting fortunes of the American workforce. Like the “Fight for 15” movement to raise the minimum wage, and other recent grass-roots progressive movements, the West Virginia strike should expand mainstream notions of what it means to be “working class” and economically vulnerable.

When pundits and political observers (and the president) talk about “working-class” Americans, they have an archetype in mind: the white, blue-collar male worker. Journalists who travel to Rust Belt communities in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio often take as a given that those workers—and laborers like them—are representative of working-class Americans. But since the 1970s, working-class labor has shifted from “making stuff” to “serving people,” a product of globalization, technological change, and a policy regime that prioritized the flow of capital above all else. Increasingly, the typical working-class American looks more like a fast food worker or paid caregiver—jobs held predominantly by white women and people of color—than someone who wears a hard hat to the job site. And while most definitions of “working class” center on workers without college degrees, there are many laborers with college diplomas whose prospects are now similar to those without them.

The teachers of West Virginia are a case in point. Despite being well-educated, their take-home pay is low relative to other similarly situated workers. Salaries for teachers in the state start at around $30,000 for those with a bachelor’s degree, $35,000 for those with a master’s, and $40,000 for those with a doctorate. Promised a measure of economic security on account of their educations, many are living essentially paycheck to paycheck.

Since they walked out, teachers have successfully won concessions to raise their pay from Republican Gov. Jim Justice and GOP lawmakers in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate. But rank-and-file teachers are continuing the strike in order to make similar gains on health care costs. Indeed, a spokesperson for the teachers union told the Washington Post that all of this was a long time coming. “This is a cumulative strike,” said Kym Randolph of the West Virginia Education Association. “I mean, the pay and the benefits have been problems for years, and there’s constantly been the promises of, ‘We’ll take care of this, we’ll take care of this.’ It’s finally gotten to the point where, you know, the promises aren’t enough.”

Those cumulative effects are impossible to separate or disentangle from race and gender. Teaching in public schools is a profession now dominated by women, and has seen its pay and prestige decline as a result. The “new” working-class jobs in the service and care industries are devalued, in part, because they are associated with black and Hispanic workers, women in particular. And the declining cachet and security of a variety of public sector jobs outside of law enforcement is as much about gendered and racialized assumptions about public sector workers as it is about an ideological opposition to public employment from the right of American politics.

The West Virginia teachers strike should remind mainstream and elite observers that “working-class” or economically vulnerable is a category that expands far beyond blue collar work and industrial labor. And early signs are that West Virginia is just the beginning. Teachers in Oklahoma are contemplating their own strike in the wake of budget cuts and similarly dire conditions in schools.

All of this comes as the United States Supreme Court prepares to issue a ruling that would cripple public sector unions, and thus fatally wound the last real stronghold of organized labor in the country. West Virginia gives the court an example of what may result when workers are deprived of collective representation and have no real outlet for grievances.

That decision will further weaken unions, which are already grappling with far less power and influence than they wielded in the past. But labor discontent, and thus labor unrest, is still a reality. It may look different than we imagine, but it’s no less potent or important.

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Jamelle Bouie is Slate's chief political correspondent.