West Virginia Teachers Inspired a National Movement. But Will They ‘Remember in November?’
Jessica Salfia has had a busy nine months.
Salfia is an English teacher at Spring Mills High School, one of the largest in West Virginia, situated in the state’s Eastern Panhandle. She’s one of the organizing members and president of the West Virginia chapter of the National Council of Teachers of English and, most recently, added the title of co-editor to her list of accomplishments for her work on “55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike.”
Published in July, the book is a collection of personal accounts and essays by those involved in the state’s 2018 work stoppage. Salfia had led the movement at Spring Mills.
“What people need to know is that no teacher wanted to leave their classroom. That’s the very last thing that any teacher wanted to do,” Salfia said. “ Our hand was forced by legislators who refused to listen to the teachers’ story and hear the teachers’ struggle.”
But, eventually, they heard. The movement that started in West Virginia caught fire and teachers in three additional states– Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona– also walked out of their classrooms. The nation watched as teachers’ filled the hallways of the state Capitols and called on their lawmakers to do more for public education and educators alike.
West Virginia teachers’ wanted stability in the pricing of their health insurance. Instead, they got a pay raise and the promise of a healthcare solution during the 2019 legislative session.
But Salfia said they won’t forget that promise.
“Teachers are still watching and listening and focusing on making sure legislators do the things they promise to do,” she said.
And West Virginians haven’t forgotten either. The nine day strike has inspired women of all ages to get involved in politics and even to run for office.
The West Virginia Teachers’ Strike
West Virginia teachers walked out of their classrooms on February 23 this year and, after nine days of standing on the picket line and crowding the halls of the West Virginia Capitol, they returned on March 7 with a promised 5 percent pay raise.
According to Erin McHenry-Sorber, seventy-six percent of West Virginia teachers are women and at most schools, the movement was led by women like Salfia. McHenry-Sorber is an assistant professor of higher education administration at West Virginia University and has studied strikes in other states. She said that female majority combined with what was happening nationally at the time played a major factor in the unions’ ability to rally teachers around the cause.
“We can think about this work stoppage as it is situated within a historical period of unrest and mass protest, led by the Women’s March,” McHenry-Sorber said. “Perhaps these large-scale strikes are suggestive of women finding their voice.”
But there were other factors that led to the success of the movement as well, McHenry-Sorber said. In rural areas, like much of West Virginia, schools stand as the heart and social center of a community and teachers were seen as taking a stand to protect public education.
Perhaps more importantly, though, McHenry-Sorber said a nationwide teacher shortage contributed to the success of West Virginia teachers and those that followed in their footsteps in other parts of the country.
“The severity of the teacher shortage is really important because, even when states or legislators have threatened to fire picketing teachers, the argument was moot. There are no prospective teachers waiting in the wings to fill these positions,” McHenry-Sorber said. “In short, the vast teacher shortage means that teachers have nothing to lose.”
From inside the movement, though, teachers like Salfia felt like they had everything to fight for, and that fight sparked more than just a movement.
Inspired by a Cause
For 18-year-old West Virginia University student Adia Kolb, the teachers’ strike wasn’t just something she heard about on the news. It was something she lived.
Kolb, a freshman psychology major, comes from a family of teachers. Her grandparents are retired teachers and her mother teaches family consumer sciences. Kolb’s mother made the trip to Charleston several times to rally outside of the state House and Senate chambers.
In her senior year at North Marion High School at the time, Kolb said she was already interested in politics when her teachers walked out– she had attended a couple of Bernie Sanders’ rallies and had organized a voter registration drive at her high school– but instead of joining her mother at the Capitol, Kolb decided to stand on the picket lines at her high school, with her teachers, she said because of the impact they’ve had on her life.
“I’ve seen the hardships that teachers had gone through up until then and everything that they had dealt with and continue to deal with,” Kolb said. “I couldn’t just not do something. I couldn’t not go stand with them. It was very personal to me.”
That personal interest in the strike led Kolb to Kendra Fershee, the Democratic candidate for Congress in West Virginia’s 1st Congressional District. Kolb, who will vote in her first general election on November 6, is also a first time campaign volunteer.
“I remember seeing Kendra back in February on the front lines of the teachers strike and standing with the teachers,” Kolb said. “Kendra is an educator herself, so I think that’s something that is very personal and something that convinced me. It’s a grassroots, from the bottom-up, people-oriented campaign, which I really find attractive.”
As an intern for Fershee, Kolb is responsible for communicating the campaign’s goals to the community. She sends letters, makes phone calls and travels to campaign events to shake hands and talk to people about the issues.
“I really think that those tiny mundane connections with people, even if I get through to one or two people, I’m able to express to them how I personally feel,” Kolb said. “It’s such a good feeling to realize that you’ve gotten through to somebody on that level.”
Despite an overall history of low turnout rates for young people, Kolb believes that voters her age can make an impact.
“There is hope somewhere,” she said.
From the Picket Line to the Campaign Trail
It was Amy Nichole Grady’s experience during the teachers’ strike that also inspired her to take action this election cycle.
Grady is a teacher at Leon Elementary in Mason County and said during the work stoppage, she heard from teachers in her area and around the state that their politicians lack an understanding of what teachers and public school employees go through. So, she said, she decided to run for a seat in the West Virginia Senate.
“I’m the type of person that doesn’t like to delegate responsibility, I like just to do it myself,” Grady said. “So, my husband and I talked about it and I said, ‘I’m tired of going into the voting booth, thinking, well, this guy’s a nice guy. Let’s hope that he does what we want him to do.’ And I just decided to put myself on the ballot.”
A first time candidate, Grady joins 154 others who have put themselves on the ballot for a statewide office for the first time. Six of those are also teachers.
For her, the most important thing isn’t politicians “siding” with West Virginia teachers, but rather, relating to them.
“I can try to explain to people what education needs or what I need as a teacher or what students need or public education in general, but unless you’ve actually seen it from the inside, you can’t really grasp it completely,” Grady said. “I think it’s really important for our legislators to stay in contact with teachers so that they understand what it is that the school system needs.”
But she isn’t a one issue candidate. Though her primary focus is public education, Grady said that her time on the campaign trail has opened her eyes to issues that she hadn’t thought much about before, like healthcare, social security and veterans benefits. What she’s heard the most, though, is concern about West Virginia’s opioid crisis.
“We have a drug crisis that affects the school systems”, Grady said. “It affects jobs, it affects the community in all ways. And, for the most part, the drug problem creates a lot more problems. So I think that’s a major issue that we should start trying to hit head-on.”
But Will They ‘Remember in November’?
Although the 2018 strike was a milestone in West Virginia history, it wasn’t the first time teachers have walked out.
In early 1990, David Bateman, a music teacher in Berkeley County, went on strike with teachers from 47 of the state’s 55 counties, but said this time, social media made all the difference. McHenry-Sorber saw that impact too.
“Even when state-level union structures suggested teachers go back to work, social media created a platform in which teachers could continue to organize en masse,” McHenry-Sorber said, and that level of digital communication has largely continued.
The Future of 55 PAC Facebook page has over 2,500 followers and shares candidate endorsements and information about voting, including how to find your polling place. Through Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, West Virginia teachers have been able to keep promoting their messages and have encouraged other states to do the same, keeping up the momentum.
“We want to make sure people are involved more in the elections, not only getting out to vote, but we’ve also got a lot of education personnel that are running for office this time in the state, which is really encouraging,” Bateman said.
In a previous study of a teacher’s strike in Pennsylvania, McHenry-Sorber found that what happens after a strike is just as important as the labor stoppage itself, because the community will remember.
“In my earlier research, participants referred frequently to a teacher strike in the district 20 years prior,” McHenry Sorber said. “Similarly in the 2018 labor dispute in West Virginia, media outlets made frequent references to the most recent work stoppage and the state’s rich labor history. Work stoppages linger in the collective psyche.”
With Tuesday’s midterm election quickly approaching, teachers and voters in West Virginia, and across the nation, are waiting to see if the political activism inspired by the strike has indeed lingered long enough to make a difference at the polls.
This story was produced as part of a social justice reporting collaboration between Morgan State University’s College of Global Journalism and Communication and the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University.