In 2018, teachers in West Virginia launched a statewide wildcat strike to protest low wages, rising healthcare costs, and a proposed measure to eliminate teacher seniority. The militancy and vision of their strike caught the nation’s attention. Despite the odds, they won — and beat back an effort by the state the next year to further undermine their working conditions and the quality of their schools. The teachers accomplished this as rank-and-file workers organizing inside their union and around their leadership, who wanted to rely on the same old ineffective strategies and capitulate before the workers’ demands were met. An assault on the teachers' working conditions may have been the spark that set off the strike, but it was the work that rank-and-file members did building a caucus within their union that gave them the know-how and the infrastructure to channel that energy. That same culture is now helping them manage the COVID-19 crisis. 

Ellen David Friedman, a former organizer with the National Education Association in Vermont, sat down with Nicole McCormick, a teacher and organizer in Fayette County, West Virginia, to talk about the 2018 strike, the caucus movement inside teachers unions, and why organizing across ideological lines is critical to building worker power. 

 

 

The transcription of this interview has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full conversation, watch the video above. 

 

Ellen David Friedman: Can you begin by describing who you are, what you do, and what is happening to you and your coworkers every day in school?

Nicole McCormick: I was the president of my former education association. [You] get treated differently when you're the president. I'm in Fayette County now, which is near Mercer County where I was. It's in the southern part of the state. I teach at a school called Meadow Bridge Elementary. And there's about two hundred students there. It's a pre-K through six, and then seven through 12 is in a building all of fifty yards away. And there's about two hundred students there as well. It's very, very rural. [I can't even] get the internet on my phone, which kills me because I'm used to talking with my steering committee of my caucus every day. 

There is a new president and her name is Danielle Harris, and she is amazing. She's one of the only Black female teachers in the entire county and she is ready for change. Instead of just having a meeting where the people complain, she went into that meeting saying, "Yes, we need to listen to those concerns, but we're going to make an action plan for it." 

[With COVID], we've already been talking about that if we feel that it's unsafe, we feel like there's enough anger and enough worry that we could get a sick-out going because there's never enough subs. We'd only need a handful of people in each building to shut it down.

 

EDF: Help us understand some of the particular conditions about organizing in a rural setting. One of the first things you brought up is that you have principals in your union and that this is something that is still a factor in rural places. [Share with us] how difficult it is to find the way to challenge your administration when they are supposedly in the same union as you are. The second thing that you said was [that there are] some telecommunication problems, and that you actually don't have internet access while you're at work on your phone. What's the main way that you find yourself developing relationships with your coworkers, making plans, and carrying them out?

NM: I just started walking around introducing myself to people and not starting out with a sales pitch, of course. But listening to concerns, taking notes, just telling them who I am and why I'm interested in what they have to say. I really feel like any time that you can speak in person, via Zoom, phone, to another human being is when you're going to most hear their concerns. Because if it's an email, it's kind of like it's on record. And a lot of people feel that way. Especially because we've been having a lot of retaliation here lately in West Virginia, which shocked me, honestly. And people telling the truth, not being ridiculous, not causing some kind of crazy disruption, and just saying, "Hey, parents, this is going on and we don't have this," and then being put on two days of unpaid leave because of it.

People are scared on a lot of fronts. They're scared that they're not doing their jobs that they said that they were going to do. They're scared for their own health. We have many, many grandparents raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren in West Virginia. We're in a foster care crisis, and older Americans are more susceptible to serious complications or death. And so, there's that worry on that side of it, and then you add onto that you're worried about people punishing you for being honest, and it's just kind of like this terrible layered cake.

 

EDF: You were very active in the 2018 wildcat strike, which for many people in the labor movement and in the teaching profession said something profoundly important about the moment that we were in. That things were so desperate for workers that we have considered to be rather secure, middle class, that you had to resort to an illegal wildcat strike in order simply to be able to find a way to survive.

NM: I was surprised in some ways. Everyone has a favorite teacher, and as educators, as school workers you get to be in the building that is the heart of the community. So much of that community revolves around your school and the people in that school and the people that get served by that school. [I think we opened a lot of eyes when we talked in] public about how difficult it was for someone that had as much student loan debt in education as we did and had the responsibilities that we do to be able to make ends meet.

[When we had] those demonstrations and escalating actions, [it really] educated the public because that's part of it, you have to educate the people around you to what the issue is and what you want to do about it and how you would like their support. And also, how that they can be included in that fight and in the future, even though you're going to be there for them, too.

[Our union was] run like an insurance company, and it's just all about membership drives. I have never been to a WVEA-led training that is anything other than, this is how you get members. I've had more meaningful training through Labor Notes, through UCORE, even through my own caucus than I did in the ten years that I was a member at that point in time. That's why [the wildcat strike] happened because [the union] was so weak.

And speaking of them not doing anything and rebelling against it, if you fast forward to probably since March, we as the caucus, as West Virginia United, have tried to have Zoom calls with experts and open them up to the public: infectious disease, HVAC, COVID-19, workers rights. We've had parents involved in the call, parents that have students with special needs [because] we want to discuss how we can best serve them. And the union, even though that union is all of us, the leadership hasn’t done any of that.

I was around hundreds of kids on Thursday and Friday. As a music teacher, I go into everybody's room. I was so upset that I even went as far as to call state leadership personally. And was like, "I'm really upset. I'm willing to do anything. Are you guys working on anything?" And I was just of course just kind of brushed off. And really, I should've learned my lesson. That was a waste of my time. If you want something done, you organize the workers with you. You don't wait on somebody else to do it for you.

 

EDF: Could I ask you to talk a little bit about the caucus movement inside teacher unions that has been developing over the last ten years?

NM: I think it's been really eye-opening that there are two camps of thought. There is this traditional idea, which was “leadership knows best” and then the other thought is, “What are we doing? Can't we look to what we did in 2018 and build something off of that?” We were only successful in 2018 because of that, because we decided that business as usual wasn't working for us.

And the caucus was born from that. It was born from this kind of eye-opening, world-changing strike and learning that you have to trust yourself. That the politicians and the elected leadership don't have some magical information you don't have and that your relationships with people in your building are more powerful than their relationships will ever be with them. Because you are a current educator, you are experiencing what the other people are experiencing, so you have that depth of knowledge. And the caucus has been such a blessing in so many ways because I felt so isolated. 

I want my union to be inclusive and transparent and democratic and that's not what's happening. Even through the election, we forced certain things. We forced them to be more democratic, we forced them to be more transparent, we forced them to be more inclusive. And how you do that is by being part of a group of people that are dedicated. They actually have goals, it's not just a place to complain. This is what we want to do, this is how we want to be active to make our work life, our life outside of work, and our union better, really, our world better. What better place to start than in a classroom?

 

EDF: It has never been just about individual specific material concerns but included these much larger social fights. One is the issue that generated the 2018 strike, the temps [who were brought in] to further weaken and shift harm onto educators of your public employees insurance system, the PEIA. I’d like to ask you to talk about not only how you fought back but then the specific way in which you developed a position about what kind of revenue sources would be acceptable to the caucus for funding PEIA, and why you made those choices?

NM: Well, we really had essentially taken a pay cut for at least three years because [our pay increase] wasn't keeping up with inflation. And then our healthcare costs were ballooning. And PEIA is for all West Virginia public employees, and it's supposed to be one of the perks of the job. During the 1990 strike, it's like, "Well, we won't give you everything, but oh, look at this great healthcare." That was the carrot. And so, the healthcare was falling apart. They wanted to do invasive programs where you could get gift cards if you made the right amount or had the right blood pressure. I mean, how condescending is that?

And they wanted to take your whole household income. So, even if you have a teenage son working at the gas station, they were going to include his income and that's where they were going to base your pay. And they collapsed the pay tiers so the people on top paid less, and the people on the bottom paid more, and the people in the middle just stayed in the middle. So I mean, just none of it made sense. And as terrible as that situation was, I'm glad that it happened because it sparked people into saying, "Enough is enough." 

We've worked with the Center for Policy and Budget. We were able to have the tax system broken down to where we could actually understand it. And we could see how much money was being given away to coal companies and gas companies and corporate taxes. Even how much money we were giving away by the land that we taxed. There are many counties in West Virginia that the land, by-and-large, is owned by out-of-state landowners. Not the people living in the state. And they pay pennies on the dollar in taxes as compared to Sheila who's working at the local grocery store, who's barely getting by. And so, we were able to look at those things and really talk about them openly. Because I think that everybody's wallet is important to them.

But it wasn't just about me as an individual. It was about my profession. If it's more than just about you, then people are going to want to be on board with you. I really think that any time that you fight for things that are for the common good, that's going to make your community better, that's going to make the quality of life better.

 

EDF: You also found unusually broad support when the caucus again decided to take on the fight against privatization and the fight against introducing charter schools into West Virginia. [You were one] of the few states that did not have a charter school industry, and many think that in retaliation against the success of your strike in 2018, the governor and the Republican leadership in the legislature decided they were going to put it to you, and they were going to try and ram through a fairly radical charter school enabling bill. Which you also understood and framed as a question of common good. Could you talk a little bit about that, and what led to your second successful strike?

NM: I think it was in November of 2018, we started getting these shots across the bow from Republican leadership. They were putting in people that have never taught, but they're a private school enthusiast, as the new Senate education chair. You could see it coming down the line already. And we quickly realized that, number one, our union wasn't going to educate people about why these things were so destructive. And number two, they probably weren't going to fight it. They were probably going to do what they'd always done and said, "Well, we're going to have a rally at the capital. You're going to make some phone calls and emails, and that's going to be plenty."

And thankfully we were able to, again, reach out to someone that had more experience than us. I think that the community at large realized they've already lost their little schools because the big push for a long time was consolidation, which is so ridiculous. I mean, how much better could we prepare our schools to be safer during COVID-19 if there were all these small little schools that only had ten or twelve kids in a classroom? 

People were seeing that if you start charter and voucher programs, you're robbing your public schools to give it to them. And of course, once you weaken that school, there's no coming back. They continually pour out.

We're very rural and one thing that really hit people hard was that charter schools don't have to provide transportation. Whenever we were talking to service personnel, we're like, "You're not going to be part of the system anymore. The word seniority means something. They're going to contract it out so they don't have to pay you the state minimum pay scale. They're going to try to get by with this as cheap as possible because they're making money. They're making money, it's not about the children. It's not about a public good." So, I really feel like I am so appreciative for all the hard work that people in the caucus, helping the caucus, that we were able to fight that. I mean, we struck for two days, and we killed it. 

 

EDF: There's no such thing as a permanent win. [The other side has] way more power than us at this moment [because of a fifty year] neoliberal assault that really has weakened the working class, and weakened our unions. And yet, in this small rural state, you've succeeded in doing the one thing which we need to do: shift the balance of power within the union, with elected officers, and in the legislature. 

It's easy to become distracted by the idea that ideology separates us from other people and other working people. [You’re building power in a very conservative state. Could you talk] to us about the role of ideology in organizing. Does conservative ideology make it impossible for people to unify? 

NM: No, it's not impossible. In 2016, Bernie won every county, and Trump won every county. And so, whenever you have a very desperate population, they're looking for something new. They're looking for help, which also goes to what your common goals can be. What are the issues? Because me as an individual, I would be the only black sheep in a flock of white ones, in my current school community. And it would be very hard for me if I was only ideological-centered and whatever label that somebody wanted to slap on me. I wouldn't be able to organize. Now, that's not saying I have to hide who I am, but I need to stick to the issues. And the issues of safety and affordability and healthcare and workers rights, those are all things that go beyond whatever political label.

[None of this stopped] me from going around and talking to everyone and saying, "Let me listen to your concerns." Because it doesn't matter if the special ed teacher loves Trump if he's saying, "I'm working ten hours outside of my workday, every single day, and I'm not getting compensated." Or when I go talk to the cooks, and it has nothing to do with if they're pro-guns or whatever [if] they don't have enough help to be able to prepare all the meals that we're sending out into the community. And that's how we were successful in 2018, and 2019. You need to be open, and discuss whatever the issue is, you need to educate people, educate each other ... educate the community at large.

And whatever those issues are, focus on that. Because that's what politicians are so great at. There's not really a big difference between Republicans and the Democratic Party. There's just not. They're all wealthy people. And so, I think that if you can really get people to understand that, like yeah, okay. I know you voted for him, I know you feel this way. You know I voted for them, but I still can't afford this. 

It's hard for me as an individual because sometimes my thought is, well, if you support Trump, you condone everything he has done and will do. And I don't necessarily think that's not the right frame of mind for an organizer to take. But I also don't think that's completely true. Because I see a lot of desperate people who don't even have windows in their trailers, they have blankets stapled over the windows, that have Trump signs in their front yard. And so, I think that they are looking for someone that they feel like they can identify with. And I know that's strange. I mean, a man with a golden toilet. But they'll say stuff like, "Well, he speaks like I do." Or, "I can really understand what he's saying."

[Of] course, none of those things appeal to me, as an individual, but I'm trying really hard to empathize with why they feel that way, and try to continually direct conversation back to what we can work on together. Because if we never agree on politics, we're never going to agree on politics. But if we can agree that we're not paid enough or that the water isn't safe or whatever it is, that's where you focus. And I also think that it's important to focus on West Virginia as a resource colony. And since our inception, the politicians have been selling us out to out-of-state people. 

If we can get past political party [we can] talk about, why are the rich running this country when 99 percent of us are like us?

 

Read the entire issue on Organizing in Rural America. 

 

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