Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
After West Virginia public employees staged a nine-day walkout, workers in other states are preparing to follow the same playbook.
When Nema Brewer picked up the phone, her voice was thick with a cold. “It’s been quite a last few months,” she told me. But taking a day off isn’t really an option—around her, a Kentucky-wide labor movement is accelerating.
Brewer is a labor organizer and a school district employee in Lexington, Kentucky, and for the past 2 weeks she’s been working with her fellow public workers in almost all of the 120 counties in Kentucky to organize Facebook groups and protests. The state’s public employees are fighting against changes to their pension that would cut cost of living increases for retirees and further gut the underfunded program, which has over $40 billion in liabilities. “We’re not asking for any more than we already have in Kentucky,” Brewer said. “We’ve been just basically raising Cain and fighting over just trying to hold on to what we have.”
Organizers have been rallying against Kentucky’s pension reform bill, Senate Bill 1, for years, but momentum surged this month after West Virginia public employees staged a dramatic nine-day, state-wide walkout—and won a five percent pay hike.
It was West Virginia that first showed how a sprawling, geographically spread-out state could quickly become a unified force, and ultimately have the demands of public employees met. “We have the same roots that West Virginia does,” said Brewer. As their February walkout came to a head, people around her started asking, “Why not us?”
Richard Becker, an organizer with Kentucky’s National Conference of Firemen & Oilers (NCFO), an affiliate of the Social Service Employees Union (SEIU), has been helping teachers and public employees strategize around stopping pension cuts, and he shared the same feeling. “There was a sense that absolutely folks wanted to take a page from the West Virginia playbook,” he said.
Unions in other states have also been inspired. Arizona teachers have mounted a “Red for Ed” campaign, inspired by West Virginia, to protest low wages: Thousands of teachers will wear red to school this month, and will march on Tucson and Phoenix on March 28. Oklahoma teachers announced that they’ll stage a strike on April 2 if pay and education budgets don’t increase. The San Diego Unified School District says they’ll picket in mid-April if they can’t negotiate a new contract with the city. And Puerto Rico teachers staged a one day walkout last week to protest a bill that would turn 1,000 schools into charter schools.
Kentucky’s rise to action ignited quickly, but Brewer believes that it’s only beginning. On Monday, March 12, more than 1,000 teachers and public workers stormed the capitol building in Frankfort; on March 21, schools in several counties closed for the day to allow teachers to rally again. Many carried signs bearing the flag of a neighboring state.
“Don’t make us go West Virginia on you,” they read.
Step 1: Get connected
So, how exactly does one “Go West Virginia”? First, you’re going to need to galvanize an entire state’s public employee network on social media.
In the Mountain State, that process began in November, as frustration with West Virginia’s Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) mounted. For years, the state had steadily reduced benefits, raised premiums, and increased out-of-pocket expenses for all public employees’ insurance—cuts that, paired with wages that haven’t risen with inflation, were deemed debilitating by critics.
Teachers, especially, were affected. The average K-12 teachers’ salary is $45,701 in West Virginia, one of the lowest in the country. (New York’s average is highest, at almost $80,000.) Neighboring states like Maryland and Ohio earn tens of thousands more, prompting a brain drain as skilled West Virginia teachers hop across the state lines.
Jay O’Neil, a middle school teacher from Kanawha County, West Virginia, together with colleague Emily Comer, created a Facebook group in October 2017 for his colleagues to voice these kinds of concerns. “Long story short, they’ve been underfunding [PEIA] for years,“ he said. “After years of that, people felt like they’d finally had enough.”
But it was a fall budgetary hearing in November that brought the issue to a head: The state revealed that cuts would continue, and that they would begin using combined family income to determine PEIA rates. Another sticking point was “Go365,” a mandatory fitness tracking program, which people viewed as an invasion of privacy. All public employees had to agree to have their steps tracked through mobile apps, and those that refused to participate were saddled with a $500 penalty.
“A lot of us felt frustrated but powerless,” said O’Neil—until teachers started communicating online.
West Virginia boasts 55 counties—many largely mountainous and rural—and a fragmented collection of unions. Social media made centralizing the movement easier: As interest grew, O’Neil opened his general Facebook group up to all public employees who were on PEIA, not just teachers. “Once that started growing and people started inviting each other I think that’s when things heated up,” said O’Neil. “People realized, oh, it’s not just me in my teacher’s lounge griping about this. It’s people all over the state who are just as angry.”
It also allowed them to bridge gaps in historical memory, bringing new teachers and service personnel together with employees who had experience organizing the West Virginia walkouts of 1990.
“The beauty of it is that there’s no geographic boundaries—there’s no boundaries whatsoever, except that you’re in this group because of what the group is talking about,” said Ryan Frankenberry, state director of the West Virginia Working Families Party, which helped public employees strategize. “It was just fantastic to have that open dialogue, and it was completely organic.”
Also key to the Facebook group’s success was its privacy setting—as an unlisted “secret” group, membership was invite-only. “There’s a feeling of security—even though everybody’s aware that there’s going to be people in the group that are watching that probably don’t agree,” said Frankenberry. “But you’ve been invited in, so there’s already a sense of solidarity and camaraderie.”
O’Neil’s goal was to grow the group to 1,000 members by Christmas. By the end of January, it had 20,000. Now, it has more than 30,000.
Kentucky organizers are following the West Virginia script carefully, but their geographical spread is even greater: The state has more than double the number of counties (120 to West Virginia’s 55), and 173 school districts. The western part of the state differs greatly from the eastern part of the state, both geographically and politically. “The first challenge was getting out of those silos and connecting,” said Brewer.
After hearing organizers from West Virginia mention their Facebook organizing on NPR, she, too, decided to create a secret group. And Brewer, whose retirement fund is linked to teachers but who isn’t a teacher herself, also decided to open up the groups—and the organizing leadership—to non-teachers.
To break people up into manageable subgroups, Brewer and her unofficial colleagues identified zone leaders in each of the congressional districts, and then divided those districts and counties by school. “We need to be just like West Virginia,” she said. “We need one county that’s brave enough to [stand up].”
Step 2: Don’t just get angry—get allies
On November 19, a teacher asked WFP’s Frankenberry if he could share his organizing expertise. She mentioned O’Neil’s Facebook group and said people were floating the possibility of creating a working group. “But it’s not exactly like we can organize a strike, right?” he recalls her saying.
It’s a frequent misconception, Frankenberry says—that labor organizing is illegal, or out of the realm of logistical possibility. “I think just in general the thinking that a small group of people can organize a strike seems very difficult,” he said. “And it is—but it can be done.”
It was easy enough to spark online anger; what was harder, Frankenberry knew, would be getting people from the couch to the picket lines. But as people started taking to Facebook to share actions across West Virginia throughout the winter, small acts of resistance quickly snowballed.
In December, a group of public employees went to a PEIA select committee hearing. The state government is required by law to have these hearings, which are often held in a tiny conference room at the Capitol. “Normally I don’t think anyone goes to these,” said O’Neil. “But through our Facebook group we got 20 people ... and then someone videoed it.” When a Senator asked an attendee to stop filming, things got confrontational. A video of the exchange went viral. (Well, “West Virginia viral,” as Frankenberry calls it.)
In January, O’Neil and colleagues stood up in the crowd at West Virginia’s State of the State address, holding a banner that read “Public Health Care, Not Corporate Welfare.” A few weeks later, on Martin Luther King Day, a rally brought crowds of public employees to the Capitol on their day off.
These larger displays were punctuated by grassroots action within county schools. Before walking out, West Virginia employees organized walk-ins—kind of like informational pickets held before the school day began. Public school employees in certain districts would go about their normal day of teaching, but began their lessons with a 30-minute primer for students and parents on health care cuts and salaries. Employees coordinated matching t-shirts on different days: they wore Red for Ed, Blue for Public Employees, and Purple for PEIA.
Small campaigns like this, replicated across the entire state, picked up steam. “Seeing photos of faculties and staffs of entire schools posted to Facebook, I think that really got people wanting to get more involved,” said O’Neil. “If they’re doing that there, we can do that here.”
Since West Virginia employees (like those in many other states, including Kentucky) are legally barred from striking, the onus was on local organizers to engage their superintendents. Only they could sanction legal work stoppages, and keep the strike going until negotiations were over.
“A walk-in wasn’t disrupting the educational day, it was just to show public action,” said Frankenberry. “Of course we got a lot of press for that, and it escalated into the public sphere.” Parents began coming to walk-ins, holding signs, marching with their kids.
Step 3: Find your foil
It also helped that throughout it all, West Virginia public employees had a clear antagonist: Republican Senate president Mitch Carmichael, a chief architect of PEIA.
“Every every story has to have a villain,” said Frankenberry. “That was part of it: People finally felt empowered and they became emboldened to not just hide behind their computer screens and talk, but take the fight to the Capitol … and essentially calling out legislators.”
According to O’Neil, Carmichael would postpone budget debates with a smirk and breeze past teachers who were at the Capitol to protest without acknowledging them. “It was kind of shocking how badly he played into it,” said O’Neil. “He made himself such a great target.” Soon, he became the focus of memes, chants (“Move, Mitch, get out the way!”) and t-shirt slogans (“Ditch Mitch”).
In Kentucky, Governor Matt Bevin appeared to volunteer to play the heel after going on camera to call protesting teachers “selfish and short-sighted.” He has since “toned down his rhetoric,” according to the Courier-Journal, after releasing a video last weekend pleading with public employees to compromise on a structurally sound pension bill.
Step 4: Disrupt with care
Even by February, some employees were wary of escalating the fight and staging a walkout, which would mean cancelling classes and disrupting the lives of students and their families. After all, for many West Virginia households, losing school days doesn’t just mean falling behind in class—it means skipping meals provided by the state.
“That was a fear from the very beginning about even trying to push for a work stoppage,” said Frankenberry. “[Teachers] would rather stay and would rather continue to suffer and struggle just because they’re afraid of one kid not getting a meal.” He urged them to look at the bigger picture: “This is about those kids—like, those kids shouldn’t be in that situation,” he said. “But we shouldn’t have teachers on food stamps, either.”
Each county grappled with that tension differently. “The cool thing about it was that a lot of it was really localized,” said O’Neil. In Mingo County, retired teachers opened up a small daycare center for students to attend while their instructors were out picketing. In some counties, teachers were actively making lunches for kids; others worked ahead of time to secure space and resources in churches or food banks. At his school in Canal County, O’Neil sent backpacks of food home with kids before the walkouts began on February 22.
With West Virginia’s experience in mind, Brewer is thinking ahead to Kentucky’s stoppage, whenever it comes. “If there is a work stoppage, how do you feed the kids that need to be fed?” she said. “How do we ensure that we have these things in place, so none of the families or the students are inconvenienced any more than they already are?”
Step 5: Make sure you ask for what you really want
After a nine-day walkout, Governor James C. Justice granted West Virginia public employees a 5 percent across-the-board raise, double the 2.5 percent raise they had been promised initially.
But the organizers’ original demands were more nebulous, loosely centered around PEIA. “I think we weren’t as clear on the demands as we maybe should have been early on,” acknowledged O’Neil. “Everyone knew they wanted to get health insurance fixed, that was the biggest thing, but it’s such a complicated issue, and no one was exactly sure how.” While the raises allow employees to better afford rising insurance costs, organizers are still urging the state legislature to revise PEIA. Justice first promised he would hold public hearings on insurance in all 55 counties, but has already walked back that number to four.
“When our union leaders sat down with the governor and said five percent, for me at least, I feel like that’s a good starting place,” said O’Neil. “I do think we need more next year. We’re still way underpaid compared to most states.”
Initial organizing in Kentucky has already made waves: The contentious Senate Bill 1 was stalled on March 14, and is being sent back for revisions. Representatives from labor unions in Kentucky, like Jefferson County Teachers’ Association president McKim, say no strikes or work stoppages are planned for the immediate future. (“At this point, with the bill stopped, I’m not sure what we’d be striking over,” McKim said).
But Brewer and grassroots organizers are readying for potential work stoppages anyway, to ensure that next time their pension is up for debate, public employees’ needs are prioritized.
The Kentucky Senate’s recently passed budget, which redirects hundreds of millions of the $3.3 billion pension funding from the Teachers’ Retirement System to state workers and the Kentucky State Police, may provide some incentive for future actions: It’s a move that public employees are viewing as “retaliation” against teachers’ opposition to the pension reform bill.
“I would guess that we have not yet seen the peak,” said Becker. “We still have a little less than a month until the legislative session ends, and so that’s how much time they have left to do something on this.”
Brewer and Becker say they’re still in close texting communication with West Virginia organizers like Frankenberry, who trusts they’ll rise to action even faster than West Virginia did. “The work that we did laid the groundwork for escalation,” he said. “I believe it’s now translating across the country to these other people—they don’t have to escalate the way we did—they’re already at a different level.”