Last month’s teachers’ strike in West Virginia paralyzed the state’s K-12 school system, as teachers demanded a five percent raise along with protections from benefit cuts. The teachers’ union eventually succeeded, extracting concessions from an uncooperative Republican governor after their nine-day strike.
This labor action, one of the biggest and most successful in years, is notable for a few reasons. First, it did rather well considering the declining union membership and growing working class fragmentation. That thousands of teachers risked their jobs to fight for what can barely even be called a cost of living increase is inspiring, as can be seen in the ongoing teachers’ strikes in Oklahoma and Kentucky.
Secondly, and more disturbingly, the West Virginia strike was notable for the near total silence from both mainstream media outlets and high-profile Democratic Party politicians. The West Virginia strike only became a major news story once it started to look like the teachers might win. Up to that point, you’d have been lucky to see anything about it on the nightly newscasts. Even NPR would only do a few minutes on it per day. Bizarrely, even supposedly left of center MSNBC completely failed to cover the strikes, preferring to air literally hundreds of segments on Stormy Daniels during March.
The Democratic Party deserves far more criticism for its silence, though. Major news agencies have been out of practice covering labor politics for a while now, but Democrats at least pretend to support working people and collective bargaining. But, as Sam Stein writes in The Daily Beast, “National Democrats stayed away from the longest strike in West Virginia history.”
Stein writes that, while Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez sent out some real nice tweets about the teachers in West Virginia, he never visited or joined them on the line. Neither, appallingly, did progressive sweetheart and frequent source of pro-labor rhetoric Rep. Keith Ellison, who has the number two position at the DNC. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were mum.
Conventional wisdom among Democrats seems to be that not only did West Virginian voters not support their party, but union members abandoned it in droves to vote for Donald Trump. Why should they support labor actions in red states when there will be no electoral payoff later? Furthermore, the centrist wing of the party has railed on teachers’ unions for years, parroting the Right’s complaints about the state not being able to fire educators at will.
Democrats like Howard Dean make the case that high-profile Democrats visiting picket lines is counterproductive … somehow. The subtext seems to be: We’d rather spend resources elsewhere and not face political blowback.
The political malpractice on display here is inexcusable. The only reasonable interpretation of national Democrats’ unwillingness to fully and visibly support the strikes is that they’ve long ago written off the red states in which the strikes are occurring as unwinnable wastes of time.
Yes, West Virginia is a red state, but it wasn’t always. West Virginia was reliably blue before economic recession and outsourcing bled their unionized mining industries dry, creating the type of dystopian hellscape of poverty and opiate addiction that only Republican politicians really thrive in.
This suggests that, lo and behold, working people will vote for a progressive party that sticks its neck out for their material interests. West Virginia is where Bernie Sanders won all 55 counties in the 2016 Democratic primary, where support for Trump is dropping, and which has deep roots in the labor movement and progressive politics.
It’s not rocket science to say that an extraordinary outreach opportunity has presented itself to Democrats. A mix of institutional inertia, unimaginative leaders and, let’s face it, genuine distaste for people living in red states continues to hold the Democrats back from embracing red state labor revolts.
Democrats walk this line at their peril and could lose even more support from economically precarious workers if they ignore the ongoing Oklahoma and Kentucky teachers’ strikes. Democrats could be making their alienation of red state voters permanent through their failure to realize that a minimal expenditure of political capital could make a world of difference for the Democrats’ chances in states like West Virginia.