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In 2018, teachers and education workers in West Virginia went on strike for better pay and benefits in a labor action that ultimately spread to eight other states. Now, a new book titled ‘Rank and File Rebels’ takes a look at the movement in four of the states, including West Virginia. The book’s co-author and former West Virginia teacher Brendan Muckian-Bates sat down with reporter Chris Schulz to discuss.
Schulz: Okay, Brendan, can you explain to me what “Rank and File Rebels” is? What is this book about?
Muckian-Bates: “Rank and File Rebels” is a book that catalogs the genesis, history and trajectory of the 2018 strike wave in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona and Oklahoma. The book seeks to illuminate some of the diversity and experiences and political landscape that shaped the terrain in which educators were thrown into this sort of immediate flash in the pan moment.
In addition to that, the book catalogs what happened a year after the strike, and what some of the movements were among rank and file educators post-strike to continue to secure their demands. And ultimately, we finish the book by looking at what the COVID pandemic had done to these rank and file education waves.
Schulz: What exactly incited these labor actions in 2018?
After the 1990s strike in West Virginia, there was an attempt to plug the hole for the state health insurance plan, and to provide teachers with, I believe it was, a $5,000 pay increase over three years. What we saw in that interim period of about three decades, the level of investment in public education had slowly been chipped away in that period of neoliberal reforms. And once we get to 2018, we see a cool mixture of educators who are communicating across the entire state, using social media platforms to share their concerns, to show that any challenges that they’re facing isn’t a personal moral failing, it’s an issue of state funding. And that the only way to get past that is to directly organize amongst one another, being engaged in another large scale action, like we saw in 1990. Many of the folks that I had interviewed in the book, either their parents were teachers who went on strike in 1990, or individuals in their building, were on strike in 1990. And that long memory really inspired many educators to feel that they were simply doing what had already been done; they were going to do it again, and perhaps more successfully in their eyes.
Schulz: What made you want to write this book?
Muckian-Bates: Post-strike, I was invited to speak at the national or international conference Labor Notes in Chicago. And being in a crowded room of union members who supported West Virginia teachers were so in awe of what we did. Talking about our experiences really made me feel alive and made me feel that what we had done would have reverberations across the country and across the world. And having lived through that experience, I felt that as someone whose background was in history, that this was an important piece of historical fact that needed to be cataloged. Especially because as the strike petered out into other actions in Oklahoma, and Kentucky, and Arizona, that this was an important piece of history that needed to be written both from a narrative standpoint, but also for individuals who want to do this themselves. This is in many ways, a training manual of how to do that. So you’re not just approaching this as an academic, you were directly involved in this action.
Schulz: What was it like looking back on this, having had that personal experience with the events you’re writing about and researching?
Muckian-Bates: I very much felt that if a book like this was to be written, it had to be written by someone who had direct personal experience with it. Histories of labor actions tend to be written at a high academic level, or by folks who are not directly involved in those experiences. And so what can tend to happen is, they apply their own political bent to the narrative, or they try to explain certain perspectives in their own right, rather than seeing it directly from that experience.
I think what makes this book different, being that as co-author I was directly involved in the strike itself, I can see the challenges of doing this on your personal life. This isn’t simply an academic endeavor to me, this was my life. And I want others to understand that when you get involved in these types of actions, and you get involved in this type of organizing, there’s a lot of extraneous factors that need to be considered. It’s done for the sake of spreading this knowledge to other teachers who might be in similar situations as we were four years ago.
Schulz: Who are you hoping reads this book? And what do you hope they get out of it?
Muckian-Bates: I hope, first of all, that the teachers and service personnel read this book firstly, because we wrote it in many ways for them to understand the history, both of their movement, as well as what are some of the limitations and fears to overcome in taking collective direct action. Secondly, I hope that everyday union members who are outside of education understand what was at stake in the strikes, what we had to overcome in order to succeed and what the limitations that we faced were. And to many of the teachers I interviewed, it felt like we could have held out a bit longer.
Understanding what those limitations are, because from a national level, you can look at the West Virginia strikes and say they won everything they asked for. And in some cases, maybe we did. But many of the harshest critics are from rank and file teachers themselves who felt things could have been different. The rank and file caucus West Virginia United was started immediately following the strike as a way of continuing that legacy. I think it’s very critical for the listeners of West Virginia to look up West Virginia United and understand what this group seeks to do, because a lot has changed over a four year period.
“Rank and File Rebels” is scheduled to publish this fall through Colorado State University Open Press.