This essay is excerpted from 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike, published by Belt Publishing.
The national media is obsessed with the idea of West Virginia as “Trump Country.” In countless interviews during and after the West Virginia teachers’ strike this past year, I was asked the question, “How could this have happened in a state that voted for Trump?” I was initially puzzled at the question; my state has a rich, militant labor history—I followed in the footsteps of my grandfather and great-grandfather by taking part in the strike. Surely reporters had done their research? But more importantly, the years of disillusionment with the status quo that led to Trump’s popularity laid the groundwork for the strike itself. The shallow narrative of Appalachians voting against our own self-interest completely fails to grapple with our long history of neglect and exploitation by out-of-state interests and our own political class.
It’s true that West Virginia has voted red in the last five presidential elections, and that Republicans swept our state legislature in 2014, for the first time in eighty-two years. Yet it’s also true that the number of registered independents in our state has soared; Democrats are changing their voter registration, but not to Republican. When I talk to my friends and colleagues, many express distrust in our political parties and institutions of government. Prior to the strike, many had stopped taking part in the democratic process entirely, refusing to vote.
West Virginians have been left with a sense of desperation and hopelessness that comes from years of broken promises by those in charge. The coal industry has left us high and dry, we have rising poverty, our population is declining, and an opioid crisis is ravaging our communities. Teachers and school service personnel, in particular, have a unique window into these effects of the economy when we step into school every day. We have students experiencing homelessness, living in an under-funded foster care system, and facing hunger. Lack of funding for education and healthcare is just one of many failures of leadership that have led to school employees—and the voters of our state—saying enough is enough.
We have seen enough to know that simply voting for Democrats won’t fix our problems. Prior to 2016, the so-called party of working people held power in our state for decades and failed to deliver. Throughout their eighty-two years of legislative control, the Democratic Party never granted collective bargaining rights to public employees. In 2007, under Governor Joe Manchin’s Democratic leadership, our state government lowered the corporate net income tax from 9 percent to 6.5 percent and began phasing out the business franchise tax entirely, leaving a budget hole of more than $200 million annually. Rather than investing in our schools, public employees, or any number of measures that would help the people of our state, Democrats chose to give millions of dollars in handouts to corporations. These tax breaks were supposed to bring in jobs, but we’re still waiting.
Teachers and school employees have been organizing around our healthcare benefits for years because of this bipartisan manufactured emergency, but it’s only grown worse. Year after year, we voted, we showed up to hearings, we lobbied, and we asked nicely. This year, we finally decided we were tired of going through the proper channels only to reach a dead end. Our desperation turned into determination, and we took matters into our own hands by leading a historic nine-day statewide strike. The solidarity that made this strike possible was not built along party lines; we were united around a set of shared grievances and people came together with little concern for party affiliation. We had a common goal: to win material gains that we deserved, to make our lives better as workers.
This unity happened so naturally in the lead-up to the strike that it took some time for me to make sense of the question “How did this happen in Trump Country?” It didn’t happen in Trump Country, it happened in West Virginia, and of course it did. Many well-meaning liberal and progressive folks around the country are so focused on party politics that they lose sight of real people and what’s actually important to us. Petty partisan bickering about Donald Trump’s tweets and weekly cabinet rotations played zero role in this fight. People cannot afford healthcare—that’s do or die. If these same observers are paying attention, they’ll note that, save for a handful, Democrats nationwide aren’t fighting for healthcare either. Healthcare inflation is a national crisis that won’t truly be fixed until we have a universal system like Medicare for All and politicians who are willing to take on the entrenched power of pharmaceutical and insurance companies.
Critically, Democrats in our state legislature sided with public employees during our fight for a raise and healthcare funding this year, but they didn’t come to our rescue. We exerted pressure and they responded quickly. Republicans stood in staunch opposition against us until the bitter end. There’s no doubt the voters of West Virginia will remember who stood for us and who stood against us come November. However, if workers had not led the charge, we may have never heard a sound from Democratic lawmakers about the need for these measures. If working people are going to keep winning, we can’t wait on politicians to save us. We must lead the fight and take our demands straight to those in power.