‘Don’t make us go West Virginia on you!’

February 4, 2019

In the light of the strike by teachers in Los Angeles and upcoming battles by teachers in other cities and states, we print below an excerpt from In Defense of the US Working Class by Mary-Alice Waters. Copyright © 2019 Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

When the [West Virginia] teachers and other school employees walked out, when they saw the strength of their numbers, their confidence and determination soared too. With support from their pupils, families, unions, and churches — and a living memory of the many bitter strikes fought by the miners — they organized emergency food services for the students and strikers. Daytime activities for the children were put in place. 

In the best traditions of trade unionism — and a precursor of the fighting labor movement that will again be built — the strike took on elements of a genuine social movement, battling for the needs of the entire working class and its allies.

“What we’re seeing is a class of people rising up,” one striking worker proudly told a reporter.

And he was right. These were the men and women whom Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign so contemptuously labeled “a basket of deplorables.” People from the “backward” (that was her word!) expanses of the country between New York and California. People she described as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic,” and especially women, “married white women” who, she told audiences, were too weak to stand up to “pressure to vote the way your husband, your boss, your son” tells you to. Is it any wonder Trump won West Virginia by a vote of 69 percent to 27 percent for Clinton?

The better class of people who engaged in this struggle across West Virginia not only kept every school closed for nine days. They sent thousands of demonstrators to occupy the state capitol day after day. Midway through the walkout, teachers rejected their union officialdom’s call to accept the governor’s promise of a deal. They’d heard promises before. They stayed out until they forced the legislature to pass, and the governor to sign into law, a 5 percent pay raise — not only for school personnel, but for every single state employee. …

And as word spread across the country, teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and other states were preparing their own strike actions. “Don’t make us go West Virginia on you!” became their battle cry.