That business in West Virginia–every public school in all 55 counties shuttered for nine days–was completely fascinating, from start to finish. At some points it was actually inspiring. And it definitely looked a lot like a strike. Schools were closed and school employees rallied together in protest with signs and songs, all the while refusing to reenter the classroom until demands were met. And there is absolutely, positively no doubt that none of it ever would have happened if rank-and-file public school employees had not stepped up and walked out in support of an audacious set of demands, no easy task in a job usually constrained by gendered assumptions that teaching should be a labor of love rather than matter-of-fact bargaining between buyers and sellers of labor.
West Virginia public school employees also successfully compelled cautious union leaders–who at first repudiated local job actions–to follow their lead and get with the program. They lobbied–also successfully–for school superintendents support the teacher walkout. And they occupied the state capital–day after day, without fail, even when union leaders instructed them to go back to school–and refused to be ignored by state legislators and the governor. Union leaders negotiated the terms of a settlement and teachers returned to work, deal in hand.
Nevertheless, there were important–sometimes advantageous–features of the movement that seem different than a run-of-the-mill strike.
Employee and employer were on the same side of the battle. That should give one pause when describing the event as a strike. The support of school officials is unconventional, to be sure, and only makes sense in the specific context of centralized, statewide school funding mechanisms in West Virginia.
Most everywhere you go–West Virginia, included–public school employees are employed by the local school district, i.e., the school-board appointed superintendent. And in many or even most instances school districts establish–unilaterally or through collective bargaining–compensation packages that are financed from local property taxes.
Teacher strikes can be brutal affairs–the Oklahoma City strike of 1979 comes to mind–and school superintendents can be every bit as ruthless as other chief executives, public or private. Sometimes teachers win teacher strikes, sometimes the superintendent wins; either way, though, nobody would think of the two sides as allies in common cause.
Not so in West Virginia. Although teachers in West Virginia are employed in a conventional way–under contract with one of the 55 school districts–compensation levels are determined and financed elsewhere, i.e., in the state capital of Charleston by state legislators and the governor. For that reason, West Virginia county school boards and superintendents are structurally positioned as allies with teachers and other school service personnel in support of greater state spending on all education funding, including teacher compensation, school administration, infrastructure spending, etc.
Even parents and those who employ parents of school-age children, surely inconvenienced and financially burdened by the sudden lack of publicly-funded childcare–had reason to support the shutdown if it meant more money to support the system upon which they necessarily rely.
Not surprisingly, then, school superintendents had everything to gain and very little to lose from a school shutdown. As a result they were enthusiastic in support of the strike and took important steps to facilitate and ultimately guarantee the success of the school shutdown. Some attended rallies and the statewide membership of the superintendents association played a visible role in lobbying the state senate leadership in support of public school employee demands–and, presumably, in determining when it was time for teachers to return to the classroom.
Late in the afternoon ahead of each day of the teacher protest, every single one of the 55 school superintendents–without exception–used their legal authority to cancel school. For nine days the school closings were announced using the exact same system used by superintendents to close schools for weather-related events.
This underwriting of the teacher action was more than a symbolic gesture of sympathy for teacher demands. Ordinarily in a strike there is a risk that some portion of the workforce will cross the picket line rather than honor the strike. In this instance the strike was honored by 100% of employees, not least because they had no other choice. There was no picket line to cross because superintendents had locked the doors.
Superintendent participation was a defining feature of the strike and one could make the argument that it was, technically, a strike by superintendents, not teachers. In some respects the superintendent shutdown resembles a conventional lockout, a kind of employer strike used to break a strike by starving out the workers. In this case, however, school employees were paid throughout the strike. School employees couldn’t be punished–and were not punished–for missing school, not if the superintendents preemptively shut the school. There was, formally speaking, no teacher action whatsoever; each day was a mandatory paid day off from school. Some used that time to rally in Charleston and that was its own form of pressure. Ultimately, however, nothing was required of school employees. None of the risk, all of the reward. Nice.
Ordinarily, public employees have no legal right to strike and employers regularly request and receive court injunctions to break strikes and/or impose significant penalties on teachers who refuse to teach. Historically, teachers and union leaders have often ignored such threats and simply added removal of penalties to the already established list of settlement demands. It’s a risky move but it is not uncommon.
State officials in West Virginia, especially the Attorney General and the state superintendent in Charleston, raised the issue of a court injunction but also acknowledged that teachers are employed by county school districts and as a result state officials had no standing in court. Only superintendents could ask a judge for an injunction and not one of the 55 superintendents ever requested an injunction or even threatened an injunction. How could they? They were the ones who shut the schools. An injunction would be meaningless until after superintendents made it possible for teachers to actually strike. No school, no strike. No strike, no injunction.
Was this, at the very least, an illegal statewide action by superintendents? No. The superintendents had the authority to shut the schools because they anticipated the possibility of a staff shortage. But that was a call they had to make and that they had to own, legally. So this is the moment, more than any other, when the idea of a possible teacher strike, although not an actual strike, plays a significant part in the story. The vague, unsubstantiated idea of a possible strike.
Historically, school superintendents who are the direct target of a strike, i.e., in districts that independently determine and finance school spending, have been willing and eager to reopen school during a strike, calling the bluff of school employees and operating schools with skeletal staff and/or replacement workers.
Not so in West Virginia. As a legal matter, superintendents justified the school closings out of concern that school might not be able to properly supervise students in the event of a staff shortage–any staff shortage, whether from the threat of a flu epidemic or an intentional a job action–or, in a combination of those two, a sickout. How was it, then, that superintendents evaluated the probability of a staff shortage? That is not a rhetorical question: exactly what mechanism was used to gauge the likely level of rank-and-file support for a strike? That is a question that, to date, has neither been asked nor answered. But it speaks to the crucial role played by West Virginia superintendents in the facilitation of the statewide school shutdown.
In many respects, West Virginia teachers made the whole thing look easy, even fun. That’s an ideal toward which all activists might strive and it certainly takes nothing away from their success. It should embolden school employees in the other 16 states where state salary schedules play a decisive role in the determination of compensation for school employees. The process is already underway and school boards and superintendents are lining up to support the strike. The Oklahoma City school board, for example, has already offered a unanimous public resolution in support of a statewide school shutdown. As for the dramatic action in West Virginia, call it what you will and by all means take inspiration. But please, don’t call it a strike.