Lessons of the West Virginia teachers strike

THERE IS POWER IN A UNION West Virginia music teacher Nicole McCormick will be in Portland July 23 to talk about the dramatic and successful 11-day statewide teachers strike.

Nicole McCormick, 33, is a mother of four, an elementary school music teacher, and one of the leaders of a West Virginia strike that shut down schools state-wide for nine days. West Virginia teachers have no state law recognizing collective bargaining rights, and yet, bargaining with their feet, they wrangled a 5 percent raise out of a hostile Republican legislature, and sparked a teacher strike wave that spread to at least three other states. Since the strike, McCormick and other West Virginia teachers have traveled as far as Mexico, Italy, and the United Kingdom to tell other union workers about what they experienced. Monday evening, July 23, McCormick will speak at the teachers union headquarters in Portland. Labor Press reporter Don McIntosh spoke with her by phone July 12.

It’s against the law in West Virginia for public employees to strike, but you struck anyway. How were you able to do that?

Well, we had clear open communication with each other. We were very clear what the issues were. We had an escalation campaign. We started out with informational pickets, like on the weekends, we would hold signs and hand out information to folks, and invite the media so we could tell the local news and the newspaper what the problem was. We escalated things, and it came to the point where some of the southern counties decided to go ahead and walk.

We knew we wanted to walk. Our leadership actually stepped up and said if these demands are not met by such and such a date our teachers and service professionals will be out. 

Then they took the strike vote, and everybody was included in that vote, whether they were members or not. We all needed to be able to walk together. We took a vote. It was secret ballot.

We found out that we had an overwhelming amount of people that were willing to walk. It was announced at a big rally with 10,000 people.

It didn’t matter if it was illegal, because what were they going to do? We had 727 teacher vacancies that were being filled by uncertified people or not at all. And we never have enough subs. So what are they going to do?

Our state attorney general tried to get county school boards to file lawsuits saying that we needed to be ordered back to work, and nobody would get on board with it.

What was the impact of the strike?

We shut down every single county school for nine days. That was the immediate impact of it. But longer term, the impact was a sense of solidarity, and a new willingness of people to speak openly of their anger and dissatisfaction and their worries. The common theme was, “I can’t afford to stay.” It’s bad enough when you’re 10 years into your teaching career, you’ve got a masters degree and you’re making $40,000. But what if you’re head cook and you only make $19,000? Those are poverty wages.

From my experience in West Virginia, as a cultural thing, you don’t talk about stuff you’re struggling with. You might speak about that privately, but you don’t put that out there. So to have people actually talk about having to choose between medication and food, having to put off bills, and wear the same pair of shoes until the bare feet were sticking out of the bottom of it… those things weren’t really commonly spoke of, especially by people that work in the school system. So it was powerful for people to be able to speak about that and not be afraid of being ridiculed. It was more like “I’m not alone. It’s not a personal failure that I can’t make ends meet. It’s a systemic issue.”

How do you feel differently about the union today than you did a year ago?

I think I was like most people, even though I was more active. I just felt like they were kind of there for insurance purposes, and if I had an issue, I could get help filing a grievance. And that was it. And of course most people I know that weren’t active in the local felt that it somehow magically worked on its own — that you would just pay your dues and somehow five or eight people in Charleston were going to magically make things better. So seeing people actually want to take an active role in the union gives me hope that it can be stronger, that we can actually get things done, because people are realizing that they are the union, and that they are the union bosses, that we pay our dues and we pay those people’s salaries to serve us.

People all over the country were paying attention to the West Virginia teachers strike. What do you think was the most important lesson you learned that union members elsewhere could benefit from?

That my labor belongs to me. I always felt like that I owed something to everybody. That I owed it to my coworkers to be there, my administrators, my students, parents. And the realization that withholding your labor has true power for change, and that it belongs to me — that was and is still amazing.

HEAR HER SPEAK: Monday, July 23, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Portland Association of Teachers office, 345 NE 8th Ave., Portland, sponsored by Portland Association of Teachers and the Portland Rising project of Portland Jobs With Justice.

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