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West Virginia United Celebrates One Year Anniversary

In 2018, we came together across different counties and unions. We stood strong and won. We truly were 55 United, and it was an amazing experience.

Therefore, I was shocked when, just weeks after our amazing strike, our unions had drifted apart and no longer seemed to be working together. We were successful because we cooperated--how could we go back to working apart again?

With this question in mind, I began reaching out. I talked to people I met during the strike at the capital, I messaged people that I saw post comments online, and I called folks in other counties. I learned that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way—a lot of us felt the power that came from being united, and we hated to see everyone go back to their respective “camps.”

As we talked more, we decided to meet up in person. One meeting led to another meeting, which led to another, which led to chatting online between meetings. We began to realize that we needed to form a caucus within our unions. We needed a group that could continue to push our unions to be more democratic, open, and, most importantly, cooperative.

During the late part of summer, we came up with principles that guide our work as a caucus. We wanted to be clear about who we were and what we stand for.

Since officially launching as a caucus, we’ve had quite a year!

1. Save PEIA Rally (09/15/18)

The day that we formally launched as a caucus was no coincidence. The main reason for the 2018 strike was the skyrocketing healthcare (PEIA) costs, and, while a task force was established to “fix” PEIA, little had been done. Aware of this, in the lead-up to the 2018 election, a rally to save PEIA was held in Charleston by educators, union leaders, and our allies. At the rally, most of our steering committee was in attendance, passing out our pamphlets, discussing our five principles, and finding out what was important to everyone there.

After the rally, we stayed in touch online – through monthly video calls and text messages. Like most public employees, we were disappointed in the results of the 2018 elections, and wanted our fellow teachers and service personnel to get re-energized. We began contacting our fellow teachers and asking them to join us in doing “walk ins” on the morning of Governor Justice’s “State of the State” address.

2. State of the Schools Walk-Ins (01/09/19)

While our governor was quick to promise another 5% raise for school employees in the fall, no new money was pledged to help the needs of our students. In particular, it was abundantly clear that our schools needed more mental health and wrap-around services—we were (and still are) far below the nationally recommended numbers.

By the morning of Jan. 9, we had teachers in service personnel in over twenty counties join us in front of their schools. Teachers and service personnel held signs, focusing on the need for mental health services, social workers, and counselors in our schools.

Framing this upcoming fight as such was important as the 2019 walkouts centered around not only the fight against privatization and charter schools, but also because there was no meaningful effort to reduce the ratio between students and counselors, psychologists, and social workers.

3. The 2019 Walkouts

When the Senate rolled out their “omnibus” education bill that included charter schools and education savings accounts (vouchers), we knew we had to act quickly. Knowing that many education workers were unclear on what charters and ESAs were, we made flyers, graphics, and a PowerPoint that could be shown at school meetings. We wanted our co-workers and communities to understand the real fight—that it wasn’t “reform” and “choice;” it was “privatization” and “out-sourcing.”

We contacted allies in other states who had charter schools, and several of them made powerful videos that we shared out. We also contacted Dr. Gordon Lafer at the University of Oregon. The author of many papers and studies on charters, Dr. Lafer has studied the detrimental effects of charters and written about how groups like ALEC work “behind the scenes” to accomplish their goals. He was willing to come on a video call with West Virginia teachers and service personnel, and then was gracious enough to let us record the call and share out clips.

As they became more educated, the rank-and-file began to clamor for a walkout, prompting union leaders to hold a strike authorization vote. As SB 451 – the education omnibus bill – was working its way through the House, many began calling on the Senate to approve the House’s amendments because it reduced the likelihood of charter implementation in the state.

We, however, maintained staunch opposition to any and all charter schools, any diverting of funds away from public schools, and any proposed legislation that did not meet with the core issues addressed in our state of the schools walk-ins. When SB 451 was amended yet again by Rucker and other Republican Senators to return it to its previous state, it was no surprise, then, that a statewide walkout was called by the three education unions. The walkout killed the bill on the first day. 2019 reinforced the belief that the rank-and-file can and must lead the unions from below, continuing to push for changes that they know are important to students and communities across the state.

4. Troublemaker’s School (05/18/19)

Months after the 2019 walkouts had ended, WV United partnered with UE, National Nurses United, and Labor Notes to host West Virginia’s first ever Troublemaker’s School. The Troublemaker’s School is a conference-like atmosphere where rank-and-file union members, community organizers, and activists come together and learn from one another’s struggles and how to build power on our own terms.

The caucus’ ties to Labor Notes, a forty-year-old labor organization co-founded by West Virginian Jane Slaughter, helped us put on our Troublemaker’s School in May. The year prior, members of what would become WV United presented at Labor Notes’ biennial conference in Chicago about the rank-and-file history of the 2018 walkouts. It was at this conference, too, that members of our burgeoning caucus met with UCORE (United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators) and learned that the militancy that we had built up in West Virginia would dissipate if we did not build a structure that could continue the fight for rank-and-file power within our unions. The caucus formed in large part to these interactions with like-minded union activists.

The Troublemaker’s School was an outstanding success that we are proud to champion. Over seventy West Virginians (and several from out of state) traveled to Beckley to learn from one another and share stories of successful and unsuccessful organizing campaigns. We learned that our fight for better public education cannot be contained to the field of education alone. We must continue to build connections with other unions and other rank-and-file members throughout this process, or else we become insular.

We worked to gather that strength and push forward when, after the Troublemaker’s School, we joined nurses in Greenbrier County on a picket line fighting for fair contracts and better standard of care for patients.

Given that the special session was only two weeks away at that point, the Troublemaker’s School provided an outlet for all of us to re-center ourselves and redouble our efforts to take on privatization at a time when strikes would not be possible.

5. The Special Session

As it became clear that the Senate was going to completely ignore the wishes of West Virginians, including the 88% who came to the WVDE-hosted forums and opposed both charters and education savings accounts, and run another omnibus bill, we knew that we had to continue to reach out to the public and help them understand why teachers were so opposed to privatization. We contacted Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris, of the Network for Public Education, and they agreed to write an op-ed that ran in the Gazette-Mail, highlighting the dangers of privatization.

We worked hard to get as many people as we could to the capitol, for both the senate session and the later house session. The house broke into four committees, allegedly to give every house member a chance to be involved with education bills, but then quickly ran their own omnibus bill that was very similar to the bills that came out of the Senate. In seeing the bill, the caucus called for a public hearing so that real citizens, not out-of-state lobbyists, had a chance to speak to the bill.

Unfortunately, with the help of money and influence from the WV Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and the Cardinal Institute, the bill passed, but we’re proud of the work we did to get our fellow school employees mobilized to fight against privatization. We also know this battle is far from over.

6. UCORE Conference

At the end of July, seven of us made the journey to Philadelphia to meet up with other rank-and-file caucuses from across the country. We spent three days learning from and inspiring each other, and we realized we’re not alone in this fight. Most importantly, we came back re-energized and ready to continue to push our unions toward our five principles during the upcoming school year.

Here’s to an equally exciting 2019-2020!

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