Why Socialists Should Become Teachers

Written by DSA teachers of West Virginia\\

A few DSA members that were teachers in West Virginia public schools began having conversations about new austerity measures facing public employees. Our wages had been stagnant for years—unlike our healthcare costs, which were climbing. We formed a reading group, held brainstorming sessions, and quickly agreed that winning our demands would require militant action. We had no idea that we were laying the groundwork for what would culminate in a historic, successful nine-day strike that spread like wildfire to Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and beyond.

Our immediate win in West Virginia was a 5% raise for all public sector workers, plus halting charter school legislation and attacks on seniority—no small feat. But crucially, our movement’s demand was that the money come from highly profitable corporations that have long exploited West Virginia’s natural wealth.

The prevailing message from many union leaders had been, “It’s our job to ask for a raise and a healthcare fix; it’s a lawmaker’s job to figure out where the money comes from.” Socialist teachers challenged this notion and made a more explicit demand: raise taxes on the corporations and extractive fossil fuel industries that exploit our people. Workers began showing up to the Capitol holding signs like “Tax our gas!” and “MAKE A CHOICE: Tax cuts for big business or healthcare for WV workers.”

The revenue battle is ongoing, but our popular campaign against corporate interests will make it harder for the ruling class to drive a wedge between public employees and other working class West Virginians by cutting services.

In fact, as school employees, our direct relationship to the economy of West Virginia played a critical role in the decision to strike and the solidarity we were able to build with our communities. The Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) that we were fighting for covers 1 in 9 West Virginians. Teachers in our state see hunger, homelessness, and the trauma caused by poverty every day; as our students’ economic conditions worsen our jobs become harder and more essential.

Knowing that two-thirds of our students rely on free and reduced-cost lunch, teachers spent the weeks leading up to the strike making calls to local churches, food banks, and community organizations to set up food distribution sites. Parents reacted by joining us on the picket lines, making calls to legislators, and shutting down conservative attacks against “selfish” teachers. Local businesses responded by bringing food and coffee to the Capitol and picket lines, and faith leaders sent out messages of support. Although our immediate demands were for public employees, it felt as though the entire state of West Virginia had taken on the 1%.

We have our work cut out for us going forward. PEIA still needs to be funded and a 5% raise isn’t enough to keep teachers in the schools for the long term. But after achieving a significant win, workers are bringing a new sense of their own power into this ongoing struggle. The strike has renewed interest in our state’s rich, militant labor history and has reinvigorated local DSA chapters. Many teachers and service personnel have begun to view politics through the lens of class consciousness. With socialists active in our organizing, we’ll be in a strategic position to make bold, visionary demands to take on the capitalist class.


Introduction

The West Virginia strike didn’t happen by chance. It was the result of creative shop floor organizing by teachers with socialist politics. These teachers introduced a fundamentally different vision of their state than what was on offer from either elected officials or union leaders. And they were able to do this because they had organic connections to their co-workers. Rather than shouting socialist messaging at workers from afar, these teachers were able to alter the direction of the movement from within.

This pamphlet argues that socialists should take jobs as teachers (and other school-based workers) for the political, economic, and social potential the industry holds.

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