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The Teachers’ Strike — Only The Last in a Long History of Labor Organizing in the Mountain State

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The West Virginia teachers’ strike ended on Tuesday in its second week. What began as a wildcat strike, it was sparked by a handful of fed-up teachers, supported by school service personnel, and catalyzed by a few populist politicians. This strike was not a piece of traditional labor organizing, nor a product of typical liberal activism. The strike reflects a brand of grassroots political action that is particularly West Virginian.

In this strike, unions followed their base. This strike lasted long past what many expected, and past what the leaders of the teachers unions — AFT West Virginia and West Virginia Education Association — might have wanted, after the rank and file rejected terms of a negotiation last week. Unlike a more “traditional” labor narrative, unions only announced the strike after the teachers had already walked out.

Teachers were clear that they were striking because the pay, and conditions of poverty, had become untenable. And, as several striking teachers articulated at a rally in front of the state capitol, teachers went out on strike — and won — not simply because of the desperate conditions they faced and the situation with PEIA, but because striking in West Virginia is cultural. As they explained, most people have a family member that went out on strike at some point, which means many people respect a picket line.

While some may find the Mountain State’s labor history at odds with the conservative nature of West Virginia politics today, West Virginians have a long legacy of mobilizing and taking bold action — and also of being backed into corners. With record levels of poverty, the state has more than a century’s history of extractive relationships to wealthy interests in the United States.

While West Virginians voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump, and the state has become a Republican stronghold over the course of the last five years, this has not always been the story of West Virginia’s politics. Local activists argue that after first glance, the social forces at play may not resemble those of typical conservative bastions.

For example, Richard Ojeda, freshman state senator and champion of the strike, and now running as a Democrat for the U.S. Congress, voted for Trump and thinks Trump inspired West Virginians because he presented something different. In a place with seemingly unending poverty and crisis, taking a risk might seem better than the status quo.

A look at the rebellious past of labor organizing in Appalachia illustrates how this historic teachers’ strike came about. And, as organizers point out, the state’s labor history could be key to creating a different future for West Virginia.

Coal Strikes

The teachers’ strike is the most recent in a long history of grassroots, even militant, strikes in West Virginia history. Paramount in all of the states’ strikes have been coal miners.

The rank and file membership of the United Mine Workers of America was, and is, a force in West Virginia politics: “We were a rowdy bunch, and it wasn’t because of union leadership… Cecil never stuck around when things got tough.” Ray Burgess, a retired UMWA miner said in an interview in his home, in Eunice, WV.  He was referring to Cecil Roberts, District Officer for the UMWA in the southern coalfields of West Virginia during the bloody Massey strike of 1985, now President of the UMWA.

The New York Times called the Massey strike a ‘coal war’, “one in which the levels of hostility and violence are reminiscent of union-management battles early in this century” (June 9th, 1985). The Times was referring to the bloody strikes of the 1910s and ‘20s, culminating in 10,000 miners taking up arms at the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921.

While it was not the last coal strike in memory by a long shot, the Massey strike marked the beginning of an end. Burgess explained Massey’s interests: “Their strategy to was do everything differently, to get past the union.”

During the 10 months of that strike, UMWA miners believed everything was at stake and that they had few options.

“The bosses would stick around to give a speech or two. But the boys would pass around a few bottles,” said one retired miner who preferred to remain anonymous. “I remember that night up at Elk Run. The [UMWA] cars took off, and we took off across that bridge. We smashed that guard shack, broke up everything we could find, and we torched the place.” Burgess, remembered: “Everybody had guns.”

It was a bloody strike. On May 29, Hayes West, a striking miner in Kentucky was shot and killed.

But it was the era of President Ronald Reagan, and the stage was set against the unions, from the breaking of the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike to appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. Those national politics set the stage for the UMWA to lose big.

Massey hired armed guards, housed strikebreakers in secure, on-premise barracks, and started videotaping the strikes. Many were arrested. The union was forced to settle for a contract directly with Massey and suffered millions of dollars in fines. Ultimately, the UMWA would lose decisively in the Pittston strike in southwestern Virginia, in 1990, regaining health benefits for workers but suffering $64 million in fines, forcing leadership to change their strategy and marking a close to a chapter of militant strikes.

WV Teachers Strike

But the end of militant coal strikes did not put an end to the fact that West Virginians and Appalachians as a whole are often faced with few choices in the face of dire poverty. Kim Jones, a teacher at Southside Elementary in Cabell County, WV, says the conditions for teachers leading up to the walkout were: “just subsistence, if that. We’ve just been going so long without a sustainable raise. We’ve just been living in subsistence for so long. It just kinda built up.”

This strike came from teachers backed into a corner, said Erin Bush, of Sudden Elementary School, in Braxton County. “… [I]nitially it was our [insurance] premiums going up, and I already was working a second job to pay for things…. I was already working hard to stay above water, and then it started looking like we were gonna drown.”

Other teachers saw their actions in this strike coming out of a series of mounting  crises in the state, from the 2014 chemical spill to the opioid epidemic. For many of the teachers, striking seemed less about union politics and more about running out of options — maybe not unlike the circumstances that led to West Virginians’ overwhelming election of Trump.

Trump Vote

Ojeda — a maverick representing the southern coalfields and an Army paratrooper who denounces lobbyists in the state house as vehemently as he advocates for teachers — is a leading Democratic candidate for West Virginia’s 3rd U.S. congressional district. In a bold speech on the floor of the state senate last month he called on energy companies to pay more for teachers’ health care, warning of an impending strike if conditions did not improve.

Ojeda, the grandson of an undocumented Mexican immigrant and UMWA organizer, became a leading political figure in the strike. He also regrets his decision to vote for Trump. But, “Trump, he got everyone excited because he said shit nobody else has ever said,” he told a Politico reporter earlier this month. He says West Virginians need things to change, which is why he says a 2017 RealClear Politics poll (among several) showed that West Virginians might have elected Bernie Sanders with a four-point lead to Trump.

This teachers’ strike is just another instance where the reaction to a long history of poverty is to say: ‘enough.’ Across the state, most have some memory, familial or personal, of the UMWA’s coal strikes or other picket lines, and that labor legacy is far from forgotten.

Gabe Schwartzman is the Director of Life Quality Initiatives at Southern Mutual Help Association, and a contributing author for the Daily Yonder. He works on just economic development and transitions for rural communities.

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Appalachia

Congress Hears Testimony From Chemical Company Executives On PFAS Contamination

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The Chemours facility, formerly the DuPont company’s site, in Washington, West Virginia. Photo: Glynis Board/WVPB

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Executives from three major chemical companies — DuPont de Nemours, Inc., The Chemours Company and The 3M Company — testified for the first time to Congress about widespread contamination from the group of nonstick, fluorinated chemicals broadly called PFAS.

The so-called “forever chemicals” persist in the environment, are linked to ill health effects, and have been found in numerous water systems in the Ohio Valley.

The hearing — the third on PFAS contamination by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Environment — explored the extent to which companies that make PFAS chemicals knew about its impacts on human health and the environment and how they should be held accountable. 

“These companies with us here today have screwed up and we need to hold them accountable for doing so,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Harley Rouda from California. “I hope the people representing those companies here today will admit their mistakes so that we can all move forward and achieve what I believe is our common goal: to clean up contaminated sites, stop exposing innocent people to toxic chemicals and making sure that all Americans have clean water and clean air.” 

Concern over PFAS contamination has grown nationwide. The Environmental Working Group estimates the drinking water systems of more than 700 communities are contaminated with PFAS. Perfluoroalkyl chemicals were used to make nonstick products and are found in some flame retardants including firefighting foam. 

Company executives called to testify focused on internal efforts to address concerns over PFAS in the face of major high-profile lawsuits and settlements over contamination in West Virginia and Minnesota. All expressed support for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action plan.” The agency in February proposed a series of regulatory steps to address PFAS contamination and cleanup

Lawmakers in both parties criticized EPA for not moving swiftly enough. Congress is considering amendments to its 2020 defense spending bill that would speed up EPA’s timeline and regulate the entire class of PFAS chemicals. 

Company executives were split over how PFAS chemicals should be regulated, although none supported broad legislative action to regulate all 5,000 PFAS chemicals. 

A representative from DuPont went the farthest. Daryl Roberts, DuPont’s chief operating and engineering officer, told the House subcommittee the company welcomed specific regulatory actions, such as listing two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, also known as the Superfund law. 

“We support legislation to list PFOA and PFOS, and only those two, as hazardous substances under CERCLA. That’s further than the other companies here are willing to go today, but that’s what we believe is correct,” he said. “What we know about those chemicals is that they’re bio-persistent. That’s enough to know that there’s a clear concern for those chemicals within society at this point in time, and we feel for that reason they should be regulated.” 

DuPont no longer makes PFAS chemicals. It split off its fluorinated chemicals business in 2015 to Chemours. A representative from Chemours said that company did not support such regulation. Chemours and DuPont are engaged in litigation over the split. Chemours argues DuPont misrepresented the environmental liabilities associated with PFAS chemicals. 

3M’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Denise Rutherford, doubled down on her company’s claim that there are no negative health effects from PFAS exposure.

“When we look at that evidence there is no cause and effect for adverse human health effects at the levels we are exposed to as a general population,” she said. 

That didn’t sit well with some Democrats, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who said this position goes against findings from government agencies and 3M’s own scientists. 

The federal government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says some studies in humans with PFAS exposure have shown: effects on growth, learning, and behavior of infants; an increase cholesterol levels; effects on the immune system; and an increase in the risk of cancer.

The hearing began with testimony from two attorneys whose lawsuits against DuPont and 3M unearthed thousands of internal company documents that showed both companies knew the chemicals were dangerous to human health and the environment for decades, but didn’t tell its employees or federal regulators.

Rob Bilott, an Ohio-based attorney who successfully brought a class action lawsuit against DuPont for its dumping of PFOA, sometimes called C8, near its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, told lawmakers he and his team for 18 years have funneled scientific studies from within DuPont to EPA that enumerated the health risks associated with exposure. 

In 2012, an independent panel of scientists — the C8 Science Panel — concluded drinking PFAS contaminated water was linked with six diseases, including kidney and testicular cancers.

The group looked at all existing studies and conducted new ones on 70,000 impacted community members from around the Parkersburg area. 

“This independent scientific review has occurred. Unfortunately EPA has not acted,” Bilott testified. “We have more than enough evidence.  We should move forward and protect the public.”

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Appalachia

From Corn Liquor to State Pride – Origins of ‘West by God Virginia’

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Trish Hatfield with her husband Jim and their son Ben. Trish’s question “Where does the phrase, ‘West by God Virginia’ come from?” won West Virginia Public Broadcasting's latest Wild, Wondering West Virginia poll. Photo: Courtesy of Trish Hatfield

Here at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, we’ve been asking listeners what they wonder most about West Virginia.

The latest question that won out in an online poll came to us from St. Albans resident Trish Hatfield. She asked, “Where does the phrase ‘West by God Virginia’ come from?” WVPB reached out to experts across the state and discovered one of the first times the phrase was found in a publication — and we have a good idea why it has stuck around.

“West by God Virginia” is an idiom many West Virginians know well, but its exact origins have traditionally been less well-understood. 

West Virginia University linguistics professor Kirk Hazen did some digging for us into the phrase. The earliest printed version he found was in a Virginia magazine published in 1926 called “The Virginia Spectator.” It reads:

“And it is, we believe, the only way that corn can be mixed and presented to a girl — except the iron plated ones from West (by God) Virginia.”

The article was written by students at the University of Virginia who, in the middle of the prohibition, are likely alluding to making alcohol, Hazen said.

He said the quote is basically saying West Virginia women can hold their liquor.

“And the implication here is that they are accustomed to drinking homemade corn liquor,” he explained. “So, they can handle it without having to mix it up in certain concoctions.”

Hazen discovered this publication with the help from a Google Books application called Ngram Viewer. It’s an online tool that sifts through a massive digital database of millions of publications in several languages.

This screenshot of Google’s Ngram Viewer shows a peak in the published phrase “West by God Virginia” in the early 1960s — perhaps due to the centennial celebration of West Virginia in 1963. Credit: Courtesy of Kirk Hazen

Hazen said the phrase likely appeared in written form earlier than 1926, but to confirm that it would take months of sifting through physical documents, such as newspaper clippings, journals, books and magazines.

Hazen found another early publication of the phrase in 1939 in an academic article published by WVU’s English department. The phrase is found in a footnote written by Harold Wentworth. The quote explores the possible history behind “West by God Virginia.” It reads: 

“Among phrases so formed is the well-known ‘West by God Virginia.’ But the expletive insertion here is more syntactical than morphological. One story of the origin of this phrase, true or not, is that a native West Virginian, irked at being called a Virginian, retorted with an intonation that can only be suggested here, ‘not Virginia, but West by God Virginia.’” — Harold Wentworth, WVU department of English, 1939

The exact origin of “West by God Virginia” as a spoken phrase is difficult to pinpoint.

Hazen points out how most spoken language is almost a living organic thing — not something that’s tracked, monitored, sorted or in databases.

But Hazen and other experts say there’s a good chance the phrase made its first oral appearance sometime after West Virginia became a state in 1863. But they say this is educated guesswork.

WVU Linguistics Professor Kirk Hazen. Hazen found one of the earliest uses of “West by God Virginia” in a publication from 1926 about corn liquor. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

We spoke with another expert from West Virginia University. Associate Professor Rosemary Hathaway specializes in American folklore and literature. 

Hathaway has been working on a book that explores the cultural history of the term “Mountaineer.” She points to parallels between the origins of “Mountaineer” and the phrase “West by God Virginia.”

“The first time the term Mountaineer shows up as a synonym for West Virginian is before statehood,” she noted.

Hathaway said before we separated from Virginia, there was a legislator from Harrison County who sent a letter to a newspaper in Richmond expressing annoyance that his region, western Virginia, was not being fairly represented in the Virginia Legislature. 

And when he signed that letter?

“He signed it, not with his name, but as a Mountaineer,” Hathaway explained. “So, I sort of see that as being parallel to the phrase ‘West by God Virginia’ in the sense that it’s just kind of a way of reminding both ourselves and outsiders that we are distinct from Virginia, and we have a unique identity and a unique history as West Virginians.”

WVU Associate English Professor Rosemary Hathaway. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

But none of this answers the underlying question —  why did people start inserting “by God” into the name of West Virginia? 

The use of “by God” in language dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, but it became commonplace in the 1600s, according to Eric Waggoner, the executive director of the West Virginia Humanities Council. Waggoner is also a retired history of English teacher.

Waggoner said “by God” has always been used as a way to emphasize something. He sees the inclusion of it in “West by God Virginia” as an expression of pride, when so much of the world perceives West Virginia in a negative light.

“There’s been a sort of narrative about West Virginia that focuses on illness; it focuses on poverty; it focuses on hard times; it focuses on this sort of thin, cultural and educational infrastructure; a lot of things that are here that need attention and that people who live here know intimately,” Waggoner explained. 

He said many West Virginians are tired and fed up with this negative narrative, and by adding “by God” into our state name, our identity, it allows us to reclaim our image. 

“There’s a kind of expression of pride, not just in place, but in being a person who is from this place, that ‘West by God Virginia’ seems to articulate in a very handy, in a very positive way,” he said.

Even though the exact origin of the spoken phrase may be difficult to find, Waggoner and others said today it’s often used to illustrate West Virginia as unique and separate from Virginia – that, by God, we are here, we exist and we have our own identity as West Virginians.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Appalachia

How Leaving Home Can Help Appalachia

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This article was originally published by expatalachians.

Appalachian folk have a complicated relationship with leaving. It’s a tension that shows up in regional media all the time: In stories about small towns working to keep their young people, about Appalachian millennials leaving New York to go back home, and, more negatively, about how folks in the region should just pack up and get out of dodge. 

This isn’t one of those stories. As one might surmise from the name expatalachians, I’ve already left Appalachia, and I’m not certain I’ll ever live there again. And although I’m sympathetic to helping young people stay in the region, I also understand why they choose to leave. As I’ve written about elsewhere, folks have moved into and out of Appalachia looking for a better life for over a century, and I won’t begrudge the current generation for doing the same.

Instead, I’m interested in discussing the possibilities leaving presents for Appalachia. Rather than enjoining people to stay or shaming them for going, I would argue conversations about leaving the region should instead focus on how to incorporate the Appalachian diaspora into regional conversations from where they are. Doing so successfully would not only expand our view of the Appalachian experience but also, with millions of Appalachian migrants and their descendants living outside the region, meaning we could better draw on migrants’ diverse backgrounds and resources in addressing Appalachia’s problems.

Doing this properly means wrestling with several fundamental questions. The one I would like to address here is where Appalachian migrants should fit in discussions about the region. Having left the region, to what extent can and should migrants claim a seat at the table in conversations about Appalachia, and when might their voices usefully contribute to discussions of its issues?

This question has gained increased urgency following the publication of Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, a descendant of Appalachian migrants raised in Southwest Ohio. I don’t care much for JD Vance’s views on Appalachia, or the solutions he offers to its problems. However, in addition to critiquing Vance’s arguments, a particular line of Hillbilly Elegy criticism has focused on his lack of Appalachian credentials due to his being raised in Middletown, Ohio. 

Wherever you come out on the debate, this line of criticism highlights the ambiguities Appalachian migrants face in trying to address the region. On the one hand, I personally find it hard to deny Vance’s identification as Appalachian. Although not part of Appalachia, the region where he grew up, southwest Ohio, was a major destination for Appalachian migrants in the 20th century, and the Appalachian migrant identity remains relevant there. Furthermore, I fear this kind of territorial gatekeeping threatens to exclude those in the diaspora who sincerely and legitimately identify as Appalachian.

On the other hand, Appalachian migrants, including Vance, must also recognize their unique position in speaking from outside the region. Just as a well-off professor in Morgantown has a different experience from a glassmaker in Clarksburg, so too is an Appalachian migrant’s experience of the region different from someone who stays. Those of us who’ve been outside the region for several years must accept that both we and the region may have changed since our departure, and that our experiences “abroad” mean we can no longer claim to speak as “typical Appalachians,” if we ever could. 

Moreover, while we may strongly identify with the region and its people, we must also accept that, in having left, our stake in the game is different from those who remain. As such, our role and our degree of power in deciding the future of the region should be different.

Of course, this does not mean migrants have nothing to contribute. On the contrary, in return for giving up our claims to being typical Appalachians, we have gained new experiences and insights that can benefit the region if used properly. One of expatalachians’ founding goals was to create a place to share and debate these insights. Almost one year on, I’m proud of the fresh perspectives we’ve been able to inject into conversations about Appalachian historypoliticseconomicsenvironmental issuesliterature, and more. 

What other forms Appalachian migrant organizing may take remains an open question. In the past, migrants have created explicitly “Appalachian” organizations to agitate for better public services, state-specific clubs to commemorate their heritage, and hometown associations to network and reminisce. 

As we are currently undergoing a renaissance in Appalachian organizing, diaspora activists would do well to look back on these experiences and think creatively about what kind of community they hope to create, and to what end. Whatever form it takes, for me Appalachian migrant organizing means prioritizing at least three goals.

First and foremost, in light of the Appalachian identity movement’s uncomfortable relationship with racism and exclusivism, we must strive to build a diverse and cross-sectional movement that includes Appalachian migrants of all backgrounds, regardless of race, class, indigeneity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other factor. 

Secondly, while preserving a personal connection to the region is important in Appalachian migrant organizing, we must also seek to critically address and work toward resolving problems back home, be it through scholarship, donations, economic investment, volunteering, activism, or other endeavors. These problems must include not only pressing issues affecting the region, like the opioid crisis and poverty, but also deeper structural factors that are often ignored, including the present-day realities of racism and colonization. 

Finally, to return to my original point, we must organize in solidarity both with fellow migrants and with folks back home while being cognizant of our different positions. This shouldn’t just be an Appalachian migrant investment fund that seeks to “innovate” Appalachia while maintaining control. Rather, we must strive to build meaningful relationships and organizational structures between migrants and home communities so that, in seeking to promote positive change, we don’t take power away from the region and the people ultimately supposed to benefit from it.

Nicholas Brumfield is a native of Parkersburg, WV currently working in Arlington, VA. He is also a 2007 recipient of the West Virginia Golden Horseshoe for exceptional knowledge of West Virginia history. For more hot takes on Appalachia and Ohio politics, follow him on Twitter: @NickJBrumfield.

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