Updated: Thursday, March 8, 2018, 2:42 PM
It may have been the most productive snow day in American history. Back in January, with their mountain-rich state of West Virginia socked in by a blizzard, snowbound teachers started a rapidly escalating conversation on Facebook, complaining about the lack of action from state lawmakers on their frozen-in-time paychecks and their worsening health benefits. The chatter snowballed, so to speak, into the defining work stoppage of the 2010s.
“We called it ‘the Facebook strike,’ ” Adena Barnette, president of the teachers’ union in rural Jackson County and a member of the statewide union’s executive committee, told me this week by phone — back in school after the nine-day wildcat strike that pressured lawmakers into approving a 5 percent pay raise and other concessions.
Barnette told me how the epic strike was powered by all the indignities of teaching school in a state where government — drunk on the influence of Big Energy — has largely ignored public education for years. Certainly the dearth of pay increases — which had forced some of Barnette’s colleagues to flee to neighboring states and others to take a second job such as working the cash register at Hardee’s — was a factor. But so was mounting resentment over health insurance that was not only offering teachers fewer benefits but doing so in ways that seemed a form of, well, harassment.
Many teachers fumed over a letter from the Public Employees Insurance Agency saying they’d be penalized $500 if they didn’t download a health app called Go365 and earn points by wearing a Fitbit — in part because some live in isolated communities where cell service is still spotty to nonexistent. As part of the process, the educators were also asked to fill out a questionnaire that then told some of them they ate or drank too much. The Facebook rage caused Gov. Jim Justice to make the app optional, but by then an anger-fueled movement had too much momentum. Said Barnette: “I think that people just woke up.”
But the other truly remarkable thing about West Virginia is that the people who woke up there were mostly women. Nationally, about 79 percent of classroom educators are female — and the Mountaineer State is no different. If you’re wondering if it’s a coincidence that this sudden tsunami of female power in organized labor comes at the exact same moment that the so-called #MeToo movement is reinventing workplace dynamics while a record number of women candidates is rocking the 2018 midterm elections, the short answer is … no, it’s not at all a coincidence. Not at all.
Indeed, you can tie together the simmering rage over the confessed p-word grabber and alleged porn-star-funder in the White House, the powerful pushback over sexual harassment, assault, and unchecked patriarchy from Hollywood to Madison Avenue and now the rising up of underpaid and disrespected schoolteachers with one simple word.
And the implications of the teachers’ big win in West Virginia are huge. In the short term, there is a slew of other states and smaller jurisdictions in the same boat — where teachers have seen their paychecks stuck and their benefits shrinking thanks to budget-cutting, pro-business politicos — and so the likelihood of similar strikes is rising in places like Oklahoma, where some 80 percent of teachers have voiced support for a proposed walkout over GOP-fed austerity.
But consider the longer term: Much of the excitement over the last year over a new wave of female empowerment — the Trump “resistance,” women running for Congress, accusations against business and media moguls — has tilted white, suburban, and upscale. Some critics have noted that the indignities heaped on working-class or poor women — unequal pay, horrible working conditions, crummy health care, sexual degradation — don’t get the same hype. Thus, a broader social movement modeled after West Virginia could be a game-changer.
The thing is, women power has been sneaking up on organized labor for years. The 20th-century stereotype of a West Virginia strike — remember the blood-on-tracks drama of John Sayles’ classic film Matewan, with violent clashes between sooty miners and armed guards? — has little meaning for the 21st century. The union movement in America is finally catching up to a world in which male-dominated mining and manufacturing shrink while the jobs in gender-diverse health care and education rise.
This decade, labor leadership has increasingly fallen to outfits like the SEIU — representing cleaners, home health-care workers, and the like — and teachers and other public-sector employees. New, unconventional movements like the pro-living-wage Fight for $15 and fast-food workers’ protests reflect the new realities — and their workforces that are increasingly female. So did the boost that unionized nurses gave to the 2016 presidential ambitions of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Kati Sipp — a Philadelphia-based veteran union organizer, now a consultant — said the rise of unions and workers’ groups with more women members and with female leadership also means more willingness to experiment in areas like smarter use of social media or other new tactics for a labor movement that had been steadily losing ground with the stodgy old ways. “Organizations led by women,” said Sipp, “are more willing to collaborate and to experiment.”
Those qualities were very much on display in West Virginia, where thousands of teachers relied on Facebook and Twitter to quickly drum up enthusiasm for a job action that spread successfully to all 55 counties in the sprawling, mostly rural state — a task that might have taken weeks or months a generation or two ago. The internet also helped build national support even when the big mainstream media outlets were slow to cover the strike.
But there was also a striking difference in style. Despite thousands off the job, there was no violence and no arrests. The strikers scored a major PR coup by making sure that kids in the Appalachian state with its high rate of poverty continued to get free lunches. Public support soared to a level that recalcitrant conservative lawmakers saw little choice politically but to meet the main demands for a 5 percent pay raise and a study of ways to improve insurance. That workers’ rights could claim a near-total victory in a state that in 2016 went gaga for the nationalism and culture wars of Donald Trump (who got 69 percent of the vote) raises the possibility of a stunning swift reversal in American politics.
And those immediate gains could be dwarfed by the opportunity for a new kind of intersectionality, in which the initial excitement over hashtags like #MeToo and Time’s Up and the downfall of some power brokers like Harvey Weinstein could prove to have been merely the spark for more massive social change, where women from all social classes can gain both equality (including, but hardly limited to, pay equity) and respect in the workplace and in other tired institutions mired in patriarchy.
In little Ripley, W.Va., where Barnette lives and teaches (“believe it or not,” she adds), the 36-year-old educator and now “woke” labor activist said the next focus will be consolidating March’s big win with action at the ballot box in November, to get support for a county tax that subsidizes schools and for new legislators — regardless of party — who will support the middle class. “We won a battle,” Barnette said, “but we have not won the war.”