"I think for any strike or any work action to be successful, you have to develop a culture of solidarity, and we absolutely did."
In February 22, 2018, West Virginia public school teachers and school service employees, most of them women, walked out of their classrooms in what would become a nine-day statewide strike, fighting for a 5% raise and affordable healthcare coverage. But what the teachers’ statements, speeches, and protest signs indicated was that this was not just a protest for personal compensation, but a struggle for better social conditions for the future of their communities. This became abundantly clear in 2019, when they again went out on strike for two-days, shutting down the “Omnibus education bill” that would give them an additional 5% raise, but would siphon money away from public education, allocating public money for private charter schools. In June of 2019, the state legislature passed a version of the Omnibus bill during a special session, despite vocal teacher protest and overwhelming public outcry. On July 10, 2019 the West Virginia Education Association, one of two teacher unions in the Mountain State, filed an intent to sue the state on account of the bill’s alleged constitutional violations.
Twenty-nine-year-old Emily Comer is a native of Ravenswood, West Virginia, and is a fourth-year Spanish teacher at South Charleston Middle School in South Charleston, West Virginia. She was a leader of the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike and was named to the 2018 “Politico 50” list and TIME’s 2019 “100 Most Influential People” list.
She spoke with West Virginia State Folklorist Emily Hilliard, who is currently working on a book based on her fieldwork in the Mountain State. Find more of her writing and documentary work at emilyehilliard.com.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for publication.
Emily Hilliard: How long have you been a West Virginia teacher?
Emily Comer: This is my fourth year teaching. I’ve taught the whole time in West Virginia.
EH: So for you, from the beginning, the strike was about both peia [West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency] and the part of your life affected by that—health insurance benefits and premiums—but also conditions in the classroom?
EC: Yeah, absolutely. The way that we were going to be affected by peia that year, just the particulars of it—I, as a single person without kids, would not have been personally as affected so badly. But I’m also someone that really relies on healthcare. I have a medical condition for which I absolutely rely on my health insurance. And I’m looking at what’s going on with the budget—they’re cutting taxes for corporations left and right, there’s no revenue coming in, and you are looking at these trends and you’re thinking, yeah, I personally might be okay this year, but I’m not going to be okay next year. If we don’t all fight together right now, am I going to be able to afford to see my doctor in two years? So yeah, I think the health insurance was the biggest part of it for me.
EH: What would you say was the culture of the strike? If you could think about the way the strike formed a culture among teachers and public service workers, what would that be?
EC: I think for any strike or any work action to be successful, you have to develop a culture of solidarity, and we absolutely did. And it was not something that I had ever seen happen in my workplace. There were so many co-workers that I just didn’t even know, and all of a sudden on the picket line, we were all getting to know each other and seeing each other in this different light—not just as somebody that works down the hall from you, but as somebody that has your back and is out there fighting with you. That relationship totally changes. And it’s something I think that we’ve been able to maintain to a certain extent.
EH: Coming back to the classroom, and even now, do you feel closer to your coworkers?
EC: Yeah, absolutely. Just to give an anecdote, when the strike ended, I came back to school and I had a coworker who I barely even knew before the strike, and she had bought me a gift. She got me a card, she wrote me this beautiful note, and she gave me a wrapped present! [laughs] Now she is retired but every now and then I’ll get a text from her that’s like, “Oh my gosh, did you read the news?” And so there were these real friendships that formed out of the strike. A gift is a pretty strong example, but there were still all these demonstrations and acknowledgements that we appreciated each other.
People talk to each other more now. About work, too—what’s going on inside the school and how we’re going to come together to fix it. We’ve had staff meetings without administrators. We’ve called for staff meetings to fix problems that are happening in our school. That happened actually the same year that we went on strike the first time, at the end of the year. There was something that happened that we dealt with together as a staff, which would not have happened without the strike.
EH: How do you see this fitting in with a larger labor movement? Why in this moment is it igniting through teachers across the country and in West Virginia specifically?
EC: I think that, for one, you have a workforce that is pretty hard to replace, and here we know that there’s a shortage of teachers. There are so many days where we can’t get enough subs in a school. And . . . our working conditions have worsened and worsened over time—we’re watching that happen. That’s why we have a shortage of teachers! It’s almost like we don’t have a whole lot to lose right now. I don’t want to say that. I mean, of course, going out on strike is incredibly risky. But I think that’s one aspect that makes this job in particular really ripe for going out and then spreading across the country. I don’t see it stopping anytime soon for that same reason.
EH: How did you see gender fitting in? Is this women-led for a reason that’s related to teachers? How did that play out during the strike?
EC: Yeah, definitely. Teachers in particular have a window into what’s happening in the rest of society. We have a window into the poverty that our students are experiencing, and, so, as poverty is worsening in West Virginia, our jobs get harder. As the opioid epidemic gets worse, that makes things harder on our students [and] it makes our jobs harder. As homelessness gets worse, as the foster care crisis spirals out of control, we’re seeing that first-hand in our classrooms. We are the first workers to deal with every aspect of that—all at once because we’re dealing with kids. I don’t want to say we’re the only workers. Of course, there are many people on the front lines.
EH: But you’re the first ones to see it daily.
EC: Yeah, daily. We form relationships with these students and we’re in a care role for these students who are dealing with all these things. So I think that when you have teachers who start making connections between the situation that our students are in and the situation that we are in with our healthcare, there’s the same bad guy, right? And I think that we as organizers were able to articulate that pretty well in the lead-up to and in organizing the strike.
EH: I’ve seen a lot of debates about whether teachers are working-class, and critiques that some of the writing about these strikes have been aspirational, romanticizing this as a working class movement when teachers are actually part of the “professional class.” And then I’ve seen the opposite—that regardless, teachers need to stand in solidarity and that this was about all public service. I was just curious where you stand on that question.
EC: Yeah, well, I read something by a teacher and I really didn’t like it. It said something along the lines of, teachers deserve to be paid more because we are professionals. And I just think that’s so wrong. We deserve to be paid more because we’re workers and all workers deserve to be paid more. We just happen to be teachers, and teachers just happen to be in this very strategic position in the economy right now and we’re using it, right? And we’re the ones leading and we should be. I think it should spread to other sectors. But, of course, we are working-class. Look, are teachers far more comfortable than fast food workers? Of course. But when you look at it from an organizing standpoint, and a strategy standpoint, it’s been very difficult to organize fast food workers. In the Fight for 15 [the movement to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour], for example, those workers do make so little. It’s a much different environment. I think that when workers are a little bit more comfortable, you find that they maybe have a little bit more time. They’re not quite as stressed out after work. You have enough of them who can come out to a union meeting and there’s not nearly as much turnover as say, a Wendy’s. So, yeah, I think the working class is very diverse, but separating us by saying we’re not working-class? What is the point of that exercise? That’s not what I’m curious about. I’m interested in how do we organize so that we can improve conditions for all of us.