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The Teacher Strike in West Virginia: Interview with IWW Teacher Michael Mochaidean

By Radical Education Department - It's Going Down, March 12, 2018

The Radical Education Department talks with West Virginia wobbly Michael Mochaidean, who has also spoken with IGD several times, about the recent teachers’ strike.

West Virginia has been rocked by a statewide strike by teachers, bus drivers, and other school employees.  Today, March 2nd, the strike enters its seventh day.

Beginning on February 22nd, workers shut down public schools in all 55 of West Virginia’s counties, rejecting abysmal and declining teacher pay and the state’s attack on public employees’ health insurance.  The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), one of the unions helping to organize the strikers, reports the following worker demands:

  • A natural gas severance tax that creates a self-sustaining source of revenue for PEIA [Public Employees Insurance Agency] and public employee pay.

  • No regressive taxes, which ultimately affect working-class families more than the wealthy elite.

  • A permanent tabling to any and all legislation pertaining to co-tenancy and joint development, which allow large natural gas industries to engulf local landowners.

  • A pay raise of 5% per year over the next half decade.

  • A permanent tabling to any and all legislation pertaining to charter schools, voucher systems, and any attempts to privatize public schools.

On February 27th, Governor Justice announced an agreement with three of the major teacher unions in the state: a 5% pay increase for teachers as well as a 3% increase for state employees generally. Union officials and the governor alike pleaded for school employees to return to work, despite the fact that key demands remain unmet.

On March 1st, however–defying the governor and official union leaders–teachers refused to return to work, swarming the capitol and chanting “It’s not over.”

Meanwhile, that same day, even the modest pay raise was refused in the state legislature.

(Following) is an interview conducted via email between John Schultz of RED and Michael Mochaidean, a West Virginia teacher and member of the IWW.

West Virginia: Extend the Strike, Build Long Term Power

By West Virginia IWW members - It's Going Down, February 26, 2018 (includes a February 27 update, below)

What follows is a proposal for how to extend the strike unfolding in West Virginia. To hear our interview with a striking teacher, go here.

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Download and Print PDF Here

The statewide strike of teachers in West Virginia that started on February 22nd is a model for teachers and other working-class people across the US of how we can struggle together for what we need. It is a desperately needed example of mass working-class solidarity in a time when the rich are attempting to fracture us even more. It is also an important model of the kinds of strikes we can wage when we realize that the existing labor laws (the same ones that the rich are trying to destroy anyways) are traps designed by the rich to tie our arms behind our backs and hold us back.

Some teachers and supporters in West Virginia are organizing through the IWW to spread a revolutionary unionist perspective in the current strike, to expand the strike and strengthen the militant mood of the teachers, and to build for long-term organization that is not reliant on politicians or bureaucrats. They will begin by distributing a leaflet to encourage teachers and other members of the working class to extend and expand the current struggle, and they will be looking for openings to expand on that organizing.

You can support their organizing by donating here. Funds raised will be used to print agitational materials, to cover travel costs related to organizing, to rent spaces or cover child-care for meetings, and to cover other costs related to building a militant and organized presence among teachers and working-class people in West Virginia.

The text of the leaflet they will be distributing is below. We also welcome anyone in West Virginia, or any teachers anywhere, or anyone else, to download the PDF and distribute it in your workplaces, schools, churches, and neighborhoods.

The Power of Working Class Solidarity

What Do We Face?

Jim Justice and the Republican-dominated legislature seek to cut state funding to the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), increasing premiums over the next several years, and eliminating teacher seniority while opening up the possibility of charter schools to privatize public education in areas in most need of quality public servants. The goal for this legislature is to utterly decimate public sector labor, reap obscene profits through private charter school investments which lack accountability measures, and ultimately reduce the quality of education in the state.

We know that both Democrats and Republicans no longer have a need for a highly-educated workforce. Instead, they seek to create a system of obedient workers who can perform the menial tasks asked of them by their corporate masters without questioning the powers that be. Careers that provide meaningful employment with a steady wage and quality health care no longer exist for the many. They have been replaced, over the course of the past few decades, with a series of half-hearted promises by both parties. If we do not act NOW to halt this reactionary legislation, we will ultimately lose our future – our children’s future – to big business and the corporate-controlled parties.

In sum, we face the daunting challenge to confront elitism in our political party system and the legislation they seek to create. BUT, we cannot create a new destiny simply by voting out one party and replacing it with another. For substantive change to occur, we must FIRST organize around our common destiny as workers.

Coal Miners Deserve Better

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, April 24, 2017

In 1989, Pittston Coal (present day Alpha Natural Resources), eliminated the healthcare benefits of all it’s pensioners. This included retirees, disabled miners, and widows. It led to the last major UMWA strike centered in southwestern Virginia, just across the mountain from Eastern Kentucky. 1,400 miners walked off the job, sacrificing their paychecks to restore those benefits to men and women whose lives were given to coal mining.

The old cliche “As much as things change, they stay the same” couldn’t be truer this day in time.

Not only has the coal industry taken away the health benefits for pensioners again, thousands of miners who retired from union mines are facing the possibility of losing their health benefits and pensions. The reasons are many, and there are a lot of fingers being pointed right now. Some want to blame the United Mine Workers for poor fund management, others want to blame the coal companies for busting the unions and eliminating future income into those plans, and a few (including myself) are casting some blame towards the for-profit healthcare industry that’s gone overboard with unnecessary tests and hospital stays to increase their financial gain. In my opinion, it’s all of it, but in the end it doesn’t matter who is to blame. Everyone who has screwed this up has more money than any coal miner will ever see in their lifetime. Why should the coal miners be the ones to suffer the results?

The burden of fixing these problems now falls on the nation who has benefited from the cheap energy and steel that Appalachia has produced. It rests with people waking up to the facts and realizing that coal companies will continually work through corrupt politics to get out of their obligations to their workers.

People deserve better than what the coal companies will ever give them, they deserve some comfort and rest after pulling their time in the mines. Every coal miner should walk off the job tomorrow and not let another ounce of coal make it to market until our fathers and grandfathers are taken care of, until every miner from here on out has guaranteed healthcare, pensions, the right to stop work if things become unsafe, and the guarantee of a healthy severance package the next time a coal company pulls up stakes to save their own wealthy hind-ends.

Actually, everyone in this nation should be raising hell with their politicians. This latest chapter of screwing some of America’s hardest working people should send shock waves through the national consciousness and have everyone up in arms, or at least looking at the voting records of their politicians and jerking the ones out who don’t actually support the working people. Last I checked, there’s way more working people suffering than rich folks. People should be standing up for what’s right and just when it comes to labor and worker safety. Politicians are supposed to serve all the people, not just the ones who line their pockets.

Coal miner retirees demand pension and health coverage

By Marg Ogolini - Socialist Action, September 10, 2016

Thousands of retired miners and supporters converged on Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8 to demand government action to shore up retiree pension and health care benefits. These benefits have been under a constant barrage of attacks from coal companies, which are determined to shed themselves of responsibility for the health and security of both union and non-union miners and retirees.

Retirees and their dependents also want assurance that existing health benefits and pensions will remain in place. The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) says the health and future of 120,000 retired miners and their families are at stake.

UMWA reports that their members traveled in more than 120 buses to the protest—from Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

Under the impact of the coal company assault over many years, gains in retiree health care and pensions that were won in past union battles have been eroding. Current laws under attack by coal companies provide some guarantees for lifetime care for mine workers. These were largely won in 1946 from militant strikes that involved over 400,000 union miners.

During 1945 and 1946, a strike wave that spread throughout the country also involved other industries—including railroad, auto, and steel. President Truman assisted the coal companies’ strike-breaking strategy by attempting to force arbitration, and eventually by threatening the UMWA with a $3.5 million fine. However, the eventual settlement included some gains for the miners, including safer working conditions and a “promise” of health benefits and retirement pension “from cradle to grave.”

One D.C. protester was Bill Musgrave, a retired miner from Boonville, Ind., and UMWA Local 1196. Musgrave, who has been diagnosed with cancer, told the Evansville Courier: “It took me a while to [find out you have to] fight as hard to keep something as you did to get it initially. … Unfortunately the government has decided to back out of the obligation they made to the mineworkers in 1946. … Seems like the government, they have the money to bail out the bankers and the corporations, and we’re not even asking for a bailout.”

A married couple attending the protest described the need for additional medical coverage given out of pocket family medical costs of over $13,000 per month. Cindy Scherzinger told the Courier: “You go to union meetings, and it looks like a retirement home. Everyone there has their own set of problems.”

Coal companies, especially those with union-organized mines, have been declaring bankruptcies, and pressing courts to allow them to evade pension and health-care obligations to their workers. One of most recent examples was Patriot Coal, a subsidiary of Peabody Energy that closed down via bankruptcy last year.

The attack on retirees is part of a broader attack against all union miners. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 2014 nearly 191,000 coal-mining jobs have been lost. Many mines that have not closed down suffer large-scale layoffs and dismissals. Workers are being thrown out on the street, and those who remain face ever increasing forced overtime hours, and steadily degrading and unsafe working conditions.

This trend will likely continue as capitalist owners are always finding new ways to expand their profits, and as they have demonstrated, will close mines in a heartbeat as they see new and greater opportunities for profit elsewhere.

Coal companies are also under pressure as the economy shifts away from fossil fuels, an absolute necessity to address the urgent problem of global warming. And it has long been well known that generating energy with fossil fuels is also devastating to the health of mine workers, who for years have been victims of black lung disease, and other chronic illnesses specific to work in mines.

Power Failure: Appalachia Plans for Life Beyond Coal

By Keith Griffith - Equal Voice News, May 3, 2016

Harlan County, Kentucky -- On his first shift in the coal mine, Brandon Farley closed his eyes to steady his nerves as the powered cart he was riding disappeared into the mountainside. A third-generation coal miner in this Appalachian corner of Eastern Kentucky, Farley began working in the mines right out of high school and kept at it for 15 years, until he was laid off in late February.

Farley, now 32 and a married father of two, worked his way up in the Appalachian coal mines to a job as an underground electrician, running the high voltage cables that power heavy, specialized equipment at the mining face. Mining is the only work he knows.

In 2010, Farley was working at the Abner Branch mine when the roof collapsed, killing his friend Travis Brock, who was 29. Farley escaped serious injury in his own years as a miner, but his hands bear a miscellany of scars from minor accidents. 

"The juice is worth the squeeze," he says, glancing at his palms with a chuckle. "I never did look at the dangers as much as I did the money."

The money, for a while, was very good. Farley was making $25 an hour in the mines. With plenty of overtime -- Farley often worked 60-hour weeks -- experienced miners like him routinely made $80,000 to $100,000 a year. In Harlan County, which has about 28,000 residents, the median household income is $25,000.

Over 50 years ago, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson toured Appalachia to kick off his "War on Poverty." Harlan County's poverty rate, which tracks roughly with the region's, was then 55 percent. It remains more than double the national average, at 32 percent, although those numbers typically don't account for government transfer payments, such as Social Security, safety net and veterans' benefits. (In 2014, Eastern Kentucky received $13.4 billion in government entitlements, making up more than a third of the region's income.)

Though it's long been a region of economic hardship, Appalachian Kentucky now faces a crisis of alarming proportions. Since the end of 2008, the region has lost more than 10,000 coal mining jobs, a decline of more than two-thirds. Kentucky's coal production is now at its lowest level since 1954, according to the state government. Other coal mining regions have been hit by the national decline in coal production, but none as hard as this one.

Locally, the collapse of coal is often blamed on President Barack Obama and environmental safeguards, which some residents say are needed to protect water, air and families. "This all began when Obama started his 'war on coal' -- and he did," says Farley, the laid-off miner. "If they are gonna do away with coal, why not put

Experts believe that the coal industry's decline in Kentucky has more to do with the abundance of cheap natural gas and drastically cheaper coal from surface mines in Wyoming. Regardless, there is a growing sense in Harlan County that coal isn't coming back.

After his latest layoff, Farley is now reluctantly looking for other kinds of work. "That's all we ever done is mine coal, though," he says. "It's the best job I ever had."

Farley finds the prospect of taking a significantly lower-paying job unpalatable, though even finding one is a challenge. After getting career counseling from the Harlan County Community Action Agency, Farley applied for work with railroad shipper CSX. But coal makes up the bulk of CSX's shipping business, and the company announced new rounds of layoffs the week that Farley applied.

"It's strange to hear the lonesome horn of a train anymore," says HCCAA Executive Director Donna Pace. "Used to be, that's all you heard."