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When Women Organize, We Win: Lessons From the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike

Hostile lawmakers cannot stand up to women united.

West Virginia teachers, students and supporters hold signs as they continue their strike on March 2, 2018, in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Charleston, West Virginia — The bottom-up, militant wildcat strike that resulted in the March 6 declaration of an across-the-board raise of 5 percent for all public employees in West Virginia has drawn substantial national attention, but it’s been less noticed that the strike of teachers and school service personnel — who are overwhelmingly women — took place in the context of one of the most serious crackdowns on women’s rights in West Virginia history.

Tuesday’s deal, which includes a freeze on health care cost increases, in addition to the pay raise, marked a victory in a crucial battle against public sector austerity, but as a majority-woman workforce, the strikers’ lives and livelihoods are still threatened by the local right-wing assault on abortion rights.

In the lead-up to Tuesday’s deal, striking teachers filled the Charleston statehouse with songs and costumes; humorous and historical protest signs; and chants urging the state legislature to pass a bill to grant all statewide public-sector workers a raise and fix state employee health insurance. Meanwhile, however, state legislators have been busy passing bills in the state house and senate this session that could functionally amount to a statewide ban on abortion.

The bills, HB 4012 and Senate Joint Resolution 12, would effectively overturn a 1993 state supreme court decision that made it possible to fund abortions through Medicaid when the procedure is approved by a doctor as being in the best interests of the mother’s health. If they become law, these bills would remove West Virginia from the group of 17 states where Medicaid-funded abortions are currently available in the case of threats to the mother’s health.

The strike is a powerful tactic that can win even against a hostile body of lawmakers, before election time.

The second resolution in the senate calls for amending the state constitution to stipulate that “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion,” which would return a post-Roe v. Wade West Virginia to the days of underground and back-alley abortions, and would make no exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother. Abortion practitioners, including both medical professionals and pregnant people who induce their own abortions, would face up to three years in prison. Proponents of this multi-step abortion ban have used coded, as well as explicit, language to attack women (particularly poor women and women of color). Women’s rights advocates see it as a cheap ploy to “get out the vote” among the GOP base in November, albeit one with lethal consequences for women.

As their own struggle continues on in the wake of the teachers’ victory, women’s rights advocates in West Virginia can learn from the example of women workers on strike: The strike is a powerful tactic that can win even against a hostile body of lawmakers, before election time.

As we look toward the possibility of a growing national movement of teachers’ strikes and strikes of other care workers in the health and education sectors, the power of women — and particularly women on strike — to transform the politics of the possible is coming more clearly into view.

The Struggle for Bodily Autonomy

Many of the strikers I spoke with in Charleston insisted that the strike is “not about politics,” presumably in an effort to preserve solidarity among teachers and support staff. However, the strike itself was ignited not only in response to a proposed 1 percent pay increase but also in response to a small but humiliating violation of bodily autonomy and health care privacy: the implementation of a health care arrangement in which workers were subjected to exorbitant costs if they did not defray their costs by agreeing to wear a Fitbit and upload their “steps” to a private company’s database, along with measurements of their bust, waist, hips and BMI, and sensitive medical information about preventative tests like pap smears, mammograms and colonoscopies.

Amid the long lines to pass through security checkpoints and enter the capital, teachers and bus drivers could be heard joking that their Fitbits will set off the alarms. They explained to me that the rollout of the “Go 365” contract “preventative health care” program was the flashpoint for widespread anger about massive increases in health care costs associated with the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA), which covers most state workers and their families. Teachers told me that the underfunding of the plan, which was once free, resulted in costs up to and over $400 per month, and the program offered savings only to those willing to wear Fitbits and share their medical data.

Teachers and staff told me they were also offered further discounts on gym membership to facilities that may or may not even exist in the relevant geographic area, or be realistically accessible in much of the rural and difficult-to-navigate state. Teachers whom I interviewed explained that the program is a violation of basic HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) privacy standards for health care providers, and said they worried the program could well become a permanent and compulsory feature of a health insurance scheme that regularly denies needed care. They also spoke of being denied coverage for basic tests, procedures and life-saving prescriptions deemed unnecessary by PEIA gatekeepers.

The overlaps between strikers’ interests and those of abortion-rights advocates don’t end at a shared concern for bodily autonomy, health care privacy and access to care. The overlaps also include a shared interest in raising pay and living standards for women, because poverty and insecurity frame women’s reproductive choices, while reproductive freedom makes it possible for women to work and support their families.

While teachers massed inside the state house, women’s rights activists rallied outside. Among the attendees at a statewide “Rally for Women’s Lives” hosted by a coalition of civil rights and feminist organizations, many attendees donned the Women’s March mascot pink “pussy hat” — a response to President Trump’s claim that he grabs women “by the pussy” when it suits him. In a similar move — one with fewer of the conceptual disadvantages that have been pointed out by trans women and women of color — many West Virginia teachers and education personnel could be seen sporting bunny-ear headbands in response to West Virginia Governor Jim Justice’s comment that strikers were simply “dumb bunnies” who failed to grasp the workings of government.

If the Women’s March and #MeToo were the era of the “pussy hat,” we’ve now entered the phase of “bunny ears.” Women workers need both: mass resistance to political attacks on women, as well as forms of democracy in action, like the strike, that go beyond elections and a two-party political frame, to direct demands.

It’s precisely the way in which teachers have been “dumb bunnies” about the legislative process (i.e., refused to accept its status quo outcomes) that makes their actions so powerful and worth learning from for the wider women’s movement. While strike leaders (and all the teachers tasked with educating the West Virginia public about civics and government) are in fact quite educated on both the legislative process and adept at self-advocating in that frame, their strike has given them a chance of winning their goals against a hostile Republican majority before November. The collective power of teachers striking for nine days — against the state government’s austerity, against the partial deals recommended by union leaders and the governor, and on behalf of not only themselves, but also their students, all public employees, and the wider West Virginia public — put them in the position of negotiating directly with lawmakers.

Striking was an implicit demand for government not-as-usual, and an extension of the session into special measures, if needed. The open-ended strike also created a condition where the political calculus became not only about votes, agendas and election dates, but about a confrontation between the majority of West Virginians and their GOP-dominated representatives. Even as teachers negotiated directly with lawmakers it’s clear that the strike was also aimed, ultimately, at the energy companies (particularly natural gas interests) holding state resources hostage to a right-wing agenda, at the expense of West Virginia’s people and stunningly beautiful environment. While the strike didn’t succeed in making natural gas companies pay, the strike named the enemy and raised the demand for redistribution.

The teachers’ victory, after a nine-day strike, is a clear victory for women in the state, as well as for everyone else in West Virginia: It shows the power of women workers in motion. Higher wages and a freeze on health care costs change the conditions under which women and others in the state make decisions about their families and finances. Because so many women are teachers and public employees, the win makes it more possible for many women to make decisions about their own lives. It makes more women able to support themselves and their families, to leave abusive relationships, to contribute to the communities they are deeply enmeshed in, and to invest in broader political fights on the horizon.

At the same time, so long as an abortion ban stands, the victory is limited by legislative attacks on women. The consequences of making abortion illegal include jeopardizing women’s ability to work and access education, in addition to sometimes jeopardizing their very lives. Women in other parts of the world — from Poland, to Ireland, to Argentina — are striking against abortion bans and gender-based violence, and winning. The West Virginia teacher strike shows that it’s not necessary to wait until November to act.

To win all of the teachers’ demands, including new taxes on energy companies that could fund a “fix” to PEIA, the strike would have to escalate and expand beyond teachers and school service personnel. A women’s strike against West Virginia’s abortion ban could unite teachers, Medicaid patients and women’s rights activists against Republican efforts to pit today’s announced provisional deal against West Virginians who rely on Medicare.

At the same time, a women’s strike in West Virginia could pressure lawmakers to solidly oppose anti-abortion legislation before November elections. The effect could be a remarkable victory for all West Virginia women, and for those in the state who rely on Medicaid and PEIA for health care.

At the Rally for Women’s Lives, feminist litigator and state delegate Barbara Fleischauer told an invigorating story about the first wave of women’s rights advocates recognizing the second wave as those breathing new life into the hope for women’s equality. In her tale, an experienced member of the National Woman’s Party, upon encountering the newly formed National Organization for Women (NOW), declared “the reinforcements are here!”

Today, another set of potential reinforcements are here: Striking teachers, demonstrating the power of the strike to win seemingly impossible demands against a hostile Republican majority, and some recalcitrant Democrats.

Meanwhile, West Virginia shows us that where workers and women’s rights are threatened, women are leaders, and where women are angry and organized, we can win. We’re already seeing the strike tool spreading to teachers in states like Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, and to nurses in California. With lessons learned from West Virginia, these strikes may begin to push the limits of what’s possible.

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