Sitting in Durham, North Carolina this week, I’ve been thinking about Calhoun County, West Virginia, where I grew up. The teachers there and in the state’s fifty-four other counties are out on a wildcat strike until they get something resembling decent pay and real health insurance.
Some of the teachers in the Calhoun high school where I spent three years were splendid. More were at least diligent. But with very few exceptions, they behaved in ways that reinforced the narrow but intensely felt class divides in a small, fairly poor, and mostly white community. As a child of back-to-the-landers, without money or local respectability but also bookish and over-articulate, I didn’t fit the local class grid, which made me acutely aware of it. I spent the ninth and tenth grades watching bright kids from poor families get punished for small infractions, slighted when they did well, and looked at askance until they made a real mistake (weed, a knife pulled out at lunch) and the hammer came down. I read these kids as just bright and curious, like the often weird and hygienically irregular hippie kids I’d grown up around, so I saw their class as something that other people did to them again and again until it became real. And I saw that the people doing it to them thought nothing was happening, that the poor kids’ character was just playing out the way you would, sadly, expect it to do. A lot of the people doing the class enforcement were teachers. Some of them sucked up blatantly to the middle-class kids. That’s what happens in a place where adults are known by the status they had in high school. Class solidarity is real, and the easiest proof is in people defending their middle-class status by kicking downward, lest anyone think they belong down there.
This is why it’s especially moving to me that West Virginia’s teachers are striking and marching, not just for their own “professional” jobs and benefits, but alongside janitors and bus drivers—the real blue collar of public employment. Their red bandannas and T-shirts allude to the miners nearly a hundred years ago who fought, marched, and ended up in a three-day gunfight with mine owners’ militias and, eventually, the National Guard. Those years are remembered in West Virginia as “the mine wars.” As Gabriel Winant pointed out recently, it’s a dramatic thing for the teachers to set down their professional mantle and say that they are workers—exploited ones—and to reach back to a mythic class insurgency to make their newly acknowledged identity a fighting one. Having seen what some of them were once willing to do to protect themselves from that conclusion, I find the change all the more powerful.
Some of the teachers, and the politician who’s mostly closely tied himself to their strike, populist congressional candidate Richard Ojeda, have called for higher taxes on coal and natural gas to pay for schools. This, too, feels like a new reckoning with the state’s history. As the teachers stream from across the state into Charleston for their rallies, they cross a broken land. Thousands of miles of streams are buried by overburden from mountaintop removal in the south or poisoned by acid-mine drainage in the more sulfuric coalfields of the north. As many as five hundred mountains are simply no longer there. (Blair Mountain, where the miners fought the National Guard, is in the companies’ sights and may yet be among the demolished.) In the heart of the coalfields, it is simply a different terrain than thirty years ago: pervasively flat, averaged by dynamite and draglines, with half-broken ridges facing major roads so that drivers get only a hint of what has happened just over the horizon. The palpable concealment of catastrophe is a little like driving past a prison. Fracking is doing its harm, too.
Since before most West Virginians knew their land lay over valuable coal and gas, few locals have owned those minerals. They went to a few speculators and the agents of mining and drilling companies, who own most mineral rights and have drawn billions of dollars from the state. There were better jobs for coal miners than for most people, once the United Mine Workers won the coalfields in an alliance with FDR, but local wages never really turned into local capital, and now most of the state is desperate again, with only about 12,000 people working coal jobs. But, despite a downturn in production, plenty of coal wealth comes out of this ground every year, and quite possibly more in natural gas.
The teachers’ movement is a reclamation and redirection of a militant working-class identity. They look back to the miners, look around at the uncompensated wreckage of the land, and look forward to the world we are all entering, where the labor is in social reproduction: teaching, caregiving, the upholding of the human world. They’re taking the miners’ literal banners into that new field, and making a claim along the way on the material wealth of the world, which is going to have to be shared very differently to make a world of caregiving work anything like egalitarian or humane. This is a microcosm, fought over the carbon capital of the industrial age, of the coming fights over who owns and profits from the finer, cleaner capital of mechanized production and digital platforms. The stakes are much the same, from West Virginia to California. Just like a hundred years ago, a place seen as backward may be one of the frontiers of the next labor movement.
West Virginia has earned its reputation as Trump country. He won 78 percent of the vote in Calhoun County in 2016, leaving Hillary Clinton with only 18 percent. In the state overall, Trump won 69 percent in the general election, 42 points ahead of Clinton.
But it’s a strange place. Bernie Sanders got more votes in the Calhoun County Democratic primary in 2016 than any other candidate in either primary: more than twice as many as Clinton, his democratic rival, but also half again as many as Trump, who won the Republican primary. Sanders won every one of the state’s fifty-five county primary votes in May. And even that deep November red is shallower and less uniform than it looks: In the fairly poor and almost entirely white Calhoun County district where my parents still live, Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012, even as the Democrats’ vote share was plummeting statewide.
This is still the same state that turned against Al Gore and Obama and gave Trump his huge win in 2016. It was also one of ten states to stick with Michael Dukakis in 1988, and one of six to back Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan in 1980 (and the only one with any claim to be in the South). It’s also where, in 1969, 40,000 miners shut down the coalfields to win health care for their retirees who were dying of black lung, still the biggest strike for healthcare in American history. In the 1970s, the insurgent Mineworkers for Democracy won union elections calling for a ban on strip-mining, and even proposed walking out to enforce environmental standards on the companies. When UMWA giant John L. Lewis died in 1969, miners walked out for a day to show they could. Showing class power was how they mourned, and how they celebrated. The state is 91 percent “non-Hispanic white,” but the coalfields in particular have drawn labor from everywhere and built a multiracial working class in the mines. You see its history in names like Carlos Gore, pronounced “car-less,” and Richard Ojeda, who says his last name like my first name. Out of all that history and a present strewn with wreckage and abandonment, a new struggle is coming, one that remembers some of its old names.