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Requiem for a Strike

West Virginia's teachers ended their historic walkout in a deal with the state's Republican governor. But at what cost?

Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP

West Virginia teachers have a deal. On Tuesday, a compromise reached by a conference committee composed of Democratic and Republican members of the state House and Senate raised public worker pay by 5 percent. Teachers and union representatives said the deal, once signed, is enough to get teachers back in classrooms. “We do believe this is what we were looking for, based on the announcement,” Kym Randolph, a spokesperson for the West Virginia Education Association, said on Tuesday morning. “All three parties—the House, the Senate and the governor—have agreed to the changes that will need to be made to the budget to get to 5 percent.”

So ended a historic strike that had closed public schools across the state for more than a week, galvanizing workers and progressive activists nationwide. In that short time the walkout has come to represent many things: a possible catalyst for similar actions in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona; a harbinger of a new red-state populism to challenge the reactionary populism of Donald Trump; a resurrection of the glory days of labor politics; and, ultimately, a rare victory for public workers who have been buffeted by hostile, right-to-work statehouses and are bracing for a Supreme Court ruling that could gut union funding. But the way the West Virginia strike ended suggests a more complicated picture, one with ambiguous lessons for workers and their champions.

The teachers were not just demanding a pay raise; they were also calling for reforms to the state’s beleaguered Public Employees Insurance Agency, or PEIA, which is meant to provide all public employees with affordable health insurance. However, teachers I spoke to acknowledged that reforming PEIA would be a drawn-out process that could not be done while the strike was ongoing. As part of his previous attempts to reach a deal, Republican Governor Jim Justice had issued an executive order creating a task force to find sources of funding for PEIA. According to the West Virginia MetroNews, that task force consists of teachers, state employees, and insurance experts. As part of the latest agreement, it will meet on March 13 for the first time.

The pay raise deal may also carry some heavy caveats. Rather than raise severance taxes on natural gas to pay for the salary bump, legislators have apparently decided to cut public spending: The cuts will reportedly come from general services, a subsidy for community college tuition, and tourism funding, among other sources. And though Justice swore on Tuesday that “there’s not a chance on this planet” that the pay raise will lead to Medicaid cuts, Republican legislators have repeatedly threatened that precise outcome. (Further details will be available when legislators release an updated budget, a separate piece of legislation from the pay raise agreement.)

The compromise lends credence to previous speculation that Senate Republicans, who control the upper chamber and balked at a 5 percent pay raise, wanted to turn public opinion against striking teachers. That bet relied on the assumption that public support for the strike would decrease the longer it continued. Now, with raises for public workers coming directly out of public spending, legislators from both parties may have ensured an anti-strike backlash.

More broadly, the deal shows the potential limits of progressive activism in cash-strapped states where conservative legislators refuse to raise taxes on big businesses. When the pool of available cash is small, cuts tend to come at the expense of those who need it, not wealthy campaign donors.

On Tuesday, some Democratic legislators seemed conscious of the deal’s Faustian implications. “I want to make sure there’s not a back-room deal here that’s punishing people who are too poor to go to the doctor,” said Democratic Senator Michael Woelfel.

Teachers expressed similar reservations, although they’re prepared to accept the deal. “It does bother me,” said Kristina Gore, a fifth grade teacher, referring to the possible Medicaid cuts. “I believe it’s another ploy for Senate Republicans to try to turn the public against teachers. Our state budget office spent time with conference committee ensuring them that the revenue estimate was there. I would like to see in writing where the cuts are coming from and just how extensive they are.”

She added, “If the budget was given to a group of teachers, I’m sure they wouldn’t have a problem finding areas of spending that are quite wasteful to cut instead of Medicaid.” And it appears that route is feasible. “Looking at what’s in the budget, there’s a lot of stuff they could take out that would pay for most of the pay raises without cutting Medicaid,” explained Sean O’Leary, a policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

Still, even if the cuts don’t come from Medicaid, chances are good they’re still going to hurt. For Republicans, public spending cuts satisfy earlier priorities: Months before teachers walked out of school, the state announced that it planned to apply for a federal waiver allowing it to enforce work requirements for Medicaid. Meanwhile, for Democrats, the deal is a political necessity: They can’t afford to be seen as antagonistic to teachers, and that leaves them susceptible to unsavory bargains.

Caught amidst the state’s budget woes and political realities, West Virginians aren’t left with much of a choice. If teachers want a more progressive West Virginia—if they want legislators who will raise the state’s comparatively low severance taxes on the coal and energy industries—they’ll have to vote for it.

Some teachers seem prepared to do so. “I absolutely think it’s going to be a movement. We’ve accomplished something that was thought to be impossible in today’s world,” said Sandy Adams Shaw, who teaches public high school. “We stood together in solidarity and demanded to be seen.”

Shaw connected the strike to other grassroots movements. “Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, #MeToo, the LGBTQ movement; we’re taking our country back one march at a time, one strike at a time,” she added.

But the strike had bipartisan support, featuring public workers who had voted for Trump and those who had voted for Hillary Clinton. It is impossible to say with any certainty how those workers will vote in the midterms and beyond, leaving the legacy of the strike in doubt. Furthermore, for those voters who lean progressive, they face a slate packed with Democrats who govern like Republicans.

The deplorable state of West Virginia’s finances can be traced in part to the policies of Democratic governors. “Many of the tax cuts go back to the Manchin administration,” O’Leary explained, referring to U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, who was the state’s governor between 2005 and 2010. “They cut the corporate income tax, they phased out the business franchise tax. We had a 6 percent sales tax on groceries that was first cut to 3 percent and then cut to 0 percent.” Manchin’s Democratic successor, Earl Ray Tomblin, also cut public spending.

“Many of the Democratic legislators were around then, and voted for those bills and cheered them on saying they’d create jobs and revenue,” O’Leary said. Democrats may be allies to teachers now, but some bear direct responsibility for creating conditions that not only demanded a strike, but left the state with so few resources to resolve the teacher’s grievances.

There are some progressive options on offer this year. Paula Jean Swearengin, an environmental activist from Mullens, West Virginia, is challenging Manchin in a Democratic primary. Lissa Lucas, a Democratic candidate in West Virginia’s seventh district, is running for the House of Delegates on a left-wing platform. But the decline of the Democratic Party in West Virginia is evident. Richard Ojeda, a state senator and aspiring congressman, achieved something close to folk hero status for his vehement support for striking teachers; someone even dedicated a song to him. But he also voted for Trump in 2016, which he now says he regrets.

Ojeda isn’t the only Democratic legislator to have voted for Trump. In many respects, West Virginia has long been mired in a localized version of the national party’s identity crisis: When does compromise become toxic? By repeatedly running conservative candidates, West Virginia’s Democrats have reinforced the state’s rightward bent, with disastrous consequences.

At its best, the strike channeled West Virginia’s long, proud history of worker action to address the challenges of this century. The red bandana, Blair Mountain, Matewan: These references are heavy with political weight, and they proclaim that the status quo is not acceptable. But today’s strike must become something more powerful than memory. We don’t know yet if the strike will have a lasting impact on West Virginia’s politics—in other words, if this populist moment can become a populist movement. That will take time, and a lot of hard work.