CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In a state not known as a friend to labor unions, hundreds of West Virginia teachers found a way to organize a massive nine-day strike that paved the way to raises they had been denied for years.
How did they do it?
The strikers themselves say social media tools were key to fostering communication and networking. And the double whammy of rising health insurance costs and proposed corporate tax breaks provided strong motivation.
A private Facebook page set up by two teachers last fall mushroomed from 100 initial members to 24,000, providing a behind-the-scenes forum for teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria staff and other public employees to plot strategy, bolster resistance and plan demonstrations that proved crucial at decisive moments.
“I think it’s remarkable,” said Joseph Slater, who teaches public-sector labor law at the University of Toledo. “I think it is a testament to their organizing ability that they could get everybody, or at least the vast majority of teachers, out on strike.”
The effort grew from quiet grumbling last fall among teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria staff and other public workers who hadn’t gotten raises in four years, but were being hit by steadily rising insurance costs.
The discontent grew after a November public hearing with state officials about increasing health insurance costs. The meeting made it clear that it wasn’t just teachers who needed to organize — it was all public workers.
“People were getting screwed and people knew it,” said seventh-grade English teacher Jay O’Neal.
O’Neal and high-school Spanish teacher Emily Comer decided to expand a Facebook page he initially created just for teachers and rename it the West Virginia Public Employees United page. Other public workers joined by invitation only, to keep the activity private. By January, the site had begun to buzz with talk of a strike, prompting another spike in membership.
Teachers were aware a strike could result in the loss of pay — or even their jobs. Despite that threat, they rallied. On Feb. 22, thousands of workers walked off the job. About 37,000 workers in 55 counties were affected. Those participating included members of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, the West Virginia Education Association, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.
After four days of no school statewide, Gov. Jim Justice and leaders of the three unions negotiated a settlement. It was a Tuesday night. Justice called for a day of cooling off and then a return to work.
But that wasn’t enough for the strikers, who wanted to see something in writing. So they voted to stand their ground and extend their walkout until lawmakers approved the raises as well.
“The membership was demanding countywide votes to stay out,” Comer said. A union co-representative for her school, she was sending group texts to everyone in it.
The teachers’ doubts were validated the following weekend when the Senate’s majority Republicans balked at the 5 percent raise, offering 4 percent instead. Finally, after nine days without classes, the reluctant legislators agreed to 5 percent and Justice signed the deal.
Prior to the strike, the teachers had been using social media to organize “walk-ins” — actions that entailed educators picketing before school and then walking into the buildings together — and to designate days of the week where everyone wore blue, red or purple shirts. Workers posted Facebook pictures so that employees around the state would be motivated by their colleagues’ activities.
There is significant interest in whether what happened in West Virginia can work elsewhere, said Ryan Frankenberry, a former staffer of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and now state director of the West Virginia branch of the Working Families Party, which opened last year.
“It’s definitely the buzz of our national organization,” Frankenberry said.
Christi Phillips, a teacher at George Ward Elementary in Mill Creek, has taught first grade for 32 years, and took part in the last most recent strike in 1990, an eight-day walkout that involved most of the state’s counties.
“I have to tell you, when this started, I told my friends at work, I have the same feeling now that I had in 1990,” she said. “Because it started exactly the same way. … The only difference is the speed at which it has happened because of Facebook and social media and Twitter and the ability to text somebody three counties over and say, ‘Hey, what’s your county doing?'”
Teachers later that year received a $5,000 raise over three years.
“In 1990, I don’t remember really how we got information,” Phillips said. “It must have been a phone tree.”
This story has been edited to clarify that the final approval of the raises happened after nine days without school, but not after a week’s time.