For Jacob Staggers, the evening of February 27, 2018, was a tense one. Staggers, a sixth-grade English teacher in Morgantown, West Virginia, joined educators in all fifty-five counties of the state in an almost unprecedented work stoppage. James C. Justice, the state’s governor, had made a bid to end the work stoppages by offering a small raise for some state employees, including schoolteachers. Staggers and his colleagues were faced with a difficult choice.
This was no ordinary work stoppage. West Virginia teachers and educators had not walked off the job collectively in almost twenty years. As what is called a right-to-work state, West Virginia legally prohibits both striking and collective bargaining. Yet women and men throughout the entire state, from all kinds of backgrounds and political persuasions—including many from mostly white counties—had still decided to take the risk of collectively stopping work. They were tired of stagnating wages, both for them and other state employees. They had had enough of rollbacks to their health care coverage. They resented the state’s demand that they share private information with the government using an intrusive smartphone app that only made the rollbacks worse. They were sick of school underfunding that ultimately hurt their students most. Finally, the idea of introducing charter schools into a state that had long uplifted its public schools pushed teachers to fight, not just for themselves but also for public education itself.
Feeling compelled to act collectively for the first time transformed many of these working women and men. Given this, they had no intention of going back to work without a real solution. In some counties, educators were already setting up long-term food pantries, online lesson plans, and other supports for students who would be missing school due to the educators’ actions. Against this backdrop, the governor’s February 27 proposal was simply not good enough. In addition to the targeted pay increase, calculated to divide the teachers from other state employees, it did nothing to respond to the issues around health care, including the invasive app that teachers were being asked to use. The governor’s proposal fell short on all counts.
Jacob Staggers was tracking the situation with his county president and fellow cheerleading coach, Heather DeLuca-Nestor, who was texting him updates from the state capital in Charleston. It was an exhausting time for him. “I was spending a lot of time on the road and not getting a lot of sleep,” he recalls:
But I realized that I didn’t want the work stoppage to end. At a particularly tense meeting that night, a lot of us met. And some were crying and asking why we were even meeting. “We got the raise, didn’t we? Isn’t that what we wanted?” But I told them that that’s not what we went out for. It was because of our insurance, the charter school legislation, and other issues. Plus, we’d said we were going to do this for all state employees, and some of them weren’t going to get anything from the governor’s offer.1
Staggers’s perspective carried the day. Ultimately the work stoppage continued, and through their actions West Virginia educators were able to win a 5 percent increase for all state workers. They were also able to stop—at least for the time being—the negative changes to their health care and the establishment of charter schools in the state.
The West Virginia teachers’ work stoppage garnered headlines and TV coverage around the nation and the world. How had schoolteachers in one of the country’s poorer and more politically conservative states managed to win such a resounding, unexpected victory—even in the absence of the legal right to strike or engage in collective bargaining? The answers to this question can offer important insights into strategies that organizers throughout the country need to consider as we design a labor movement suited for maximum effectiveness in the twenty-first century.
As the story of the teachers’ strike illustrates, many workers in West Virginia and other right-to-work states are demonstrating practices capable of engaging millions of working families who lack access to a union contract—and they are doing so without waiting to receive an official guarantee of protection. The West Virginia Education Association and West Virginia Federation of Teachers embodied what it meant to act like a union when they took mass action in support of people unable to access the protections of a union, in many cases winning important victories.
Another group of organizations that are operating in this fashion can be captured under the umbrella term worker centers. They have evolved in the last thirty years to meet the immediate needs of individuals who, for whatever reason, cannot form a union. And while they are not unions, they are about building the collective power of workers—unlike historic company-driven models of representation, such as Taylorism, which actively sought to mute workers’ collective power.2 The fact that many of these organizations support nonunion workers in what are now recognized as essential sectors illustrates just how sick our democracy has become: the most essential workers are those with the least power and access to democracy.
Jobs With Justice coalitions supported some of the earliest worker centers, some of which were launched by individuals seeking to join unions, others by people who simply needed help recovering stolen wages in order to get their lights turned back on. Over the years, many worker centers have organized by business or economic sector and worked with traditional unions to attempt to raise standards in an industry.
For example, in fall 2010, at the urging of a worker center called Domestic Workers United (DWU), the state of New York passed a bill of rights, the first of its kind, which essentially organized domestic workers, nannies, and other caregivers to negotiate with the state to include them in the basic labor protections afforded by law. DWU and similar organizations around the country went on to form the National Domestic Workers Alliance and later, the International Domestic Workers Federation, creating the potential for setting labor standards nationally through a federal domestic workers bill of rights as well as the establishment of a global framework for domestic work under the auspices of the International Labor Organization.
Another worker center, the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, organized Indian metal workers to protect them from a company called Signal that was engaged in a number of exploitive practices. The Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity later grew to become the National Guestworkers Alliance (NGA), which blazed a new path in 2012 when it helped eleven Louisiana workers under contract with a small company named C.J.’s Seafood to obtain a meeting with the ultimate beneficiary of their labor, the retail giant Walmart.3 The NGA workers acted big, seeking to negotiate directly with the people at the far end of the food chain, and they won. We will delve more deeply into the strategy of negotiating with the ultimate profiteers of global capital in a later chapter.
Other worker centers are fighting to improve conditions in different sectors. The Restaurant Opportunities Center United has found new ways to negotiate with the food industry, taking on the issue of the so-called tipped minimum wage. Based on the idea that workers perform for tips instead of a baseline salary, the tipped minimum wage is actually one of the last relics of slavery. It originated after the Civil War when former plantation owners fought to ensure that former enslaved people would be dependent on charitable gifts from their employers rather than freely negotiated salaries.4 Interventions by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which organizes many undocumented workers, have improved standards in the residential construction industry.5 And the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and other farmworker organizations have leveraged consumer influence over multinational food brands to ensure safe, worker-defined standards for their members in agriculture.
A number of these worker centers went on to form the United Workers Congress (UWC), a federation-like coalition to address the interests of workers excluded from traditional union organizing, including many Black, Brown, formerly incarcerated, and immigrant workers. While the UWC no longer exists, its legacy continues in the successful organizing of both national worker center networks and strong regional worker centers throughout the country; in the deepened work of supply-chain and migration organizing of groups like Global Labor Justice; and in the campaigns centered around essential workers after the COVID-19 outbreak.
As you can see, the West Virginia teachers are far from the only workers in America who are taking on the powers-that-be without the protections most unions have. This is an important fact for would-be organizers to recognize. Power is not dependent on following traditionally prescribed paths. Instead, it grows from the collective action of people in shared economic relationships who are determined to work together to make their voices heard and to have their needs met from common decision-makers. Once those conditions are met, all kinds of victories are possible.
Many of the labor victories we have been describing have occurred in regions or sectors often deemed politically challenging by progressives—states like West Virginia and Louisiana and sectors like agriculture, domestic work, and hospitality. How can this be?
Stepping back, it is not so difficult to reconcile. The work in West Virginia provides an excellent case study in how critical it is to see the whole person, not just the employee, when evolving our framework for organizing and collective bargaining. It shows what can happen when people unite around a set of shared values, even across seemingly deep ideological or political divides.
Comments by Amelia “Amie” Mullens, a West Virginia mom who teaches seventh and eighth grade science, go a long way toward explaining how this works. Asked to explain what motivated her and her fellow teachers to support the work stoppage, Mullens said, “If we couldn’t take care of our own health care, how were we going to take care of the health of our students? And we really need to do that, because we have an opioid crisis here. My husband works as an emergency medical services worker and sees it firsthand. And we, as teachers, get notes from EMS that say HWC—handle with care—for students who may have been impacted by addiction. During the strike, we still had to be able to get to them. They may live over a holler and not be able to get to school. So we depended on local nurses, churches, and other nonprofits to help us. That’s what we do as teachers.”6
Mullens’s explanation illustrates the compassion and commitment that motivates workers like school teachers, not just in West Virginia but also in communities everywhere. But it does not explain a remarkable anomaly about the state’s teacher stoppage. The first of the fifty-five West Virginia counties to call for and then implement the work stoppage were Logan, Mingo, and Wyoming Counties—all located in the southern part of the state, the epicenter of the mine wars after World War I, from which the miners who engaged in the Battle of Blair Mountain came.7 Mullens lived and worked in Wyoming County during the time of the walkouts (see figure 7.1).
You might assume that these counties contain the most progressive activists in the state—the educators’ movement avant-garde. Are these the counties where West Virginia’s urban elite live?
The answer is a resounding no. If anything, voters in the southern end of West Virginia are more conservative than those in other parts of the state. Wyoming County, for example, is far from diverse (98 percent white), is relatively poor (a median household income of $36,000 versus $49,000 nationwide), and cast 83.6 percent of its votes for Donald Trump in 2016—the highest percentage of any county in the state.
As Amie Mullens puts it, “You can draw a line between the southern counties and the rest of the state. We have a different mentality here. Down here, you don’t mess with your people. And you’re going to have people behind you if someone does. So, when the legislative attacks on teachers came, we decided we weren’t going to wait. We took off in a school bus to Charleston to fight for our rights and the rights of our students. And it was such bad weather that the snowplow rode in front of the school buses to get us across county lines. We didn’t let that stop us. That’s the kind of support we had.”8
Amie’s experience helps clarify the willingness of working people to act collectively when motivated and inspired by a bold vision aligned with their shared values, including issues that go beyond their immediate wants and needs. Organizing people is not about their ideology. It is about appealing to the values that drive them.
Allyson Perry and Heather DeLuca-Nestor are two of the teachers who participated in the West Virginia work stoppage of 2018. At the time, both were presidents of their county union locals—Allyson in Marion and Heather in Monongalia. And both had stories to tell.
I remember the night before the walkout in Marion County. I was staying late in my classroom finishing up a lot of stuff because I wasn’t sure when we were going to be back. I remember leaving that school thinking that this was one of the biggest things I’ve ever done in my entire life and that I had no idea what’s going to happen. We didn’t have collective bargaining rights in West Virginia. Who knew what the state leaders would do? But we still had power. I felt we were on the cusp of something. It felt like being at the edge of a cliff and you’re either going to fly off or drop to your doom. I was nervous but I knew we had to do this. I was ready. I’d been feeling the buildup for weeks. So, I wanted to hang glide off the cliff, to soar. That’s how I felt while I was waiting to leave work the day before it all started.
I really didn’t want to walk out at first. It had to be a last resort because, if you lose, then what? You’ve exhausted all possibilities.
My dad was a teacher during the 1990 strike. My parents were divorced, but I remember him going to my mom who was also a teacher and saying, “Don’t you cross that picket line, Cheryl.” And she said, “Jerry, I can’t afford not to.” He responded that he’d pay more in child support to make it work, and he said again, “Don’t you cross that picket line.” And she didn’t. They made it work.
The teachers did win an increase in pay along with a faculty senate that gave them more of a voice. But that strike was not as successful as many had hoped, and people still harbor bad feelings about it.
I was in a graduate school program in Pennsylvania when I realized that I preferred teaching to research. I started substitute teaching. Everyone was a part of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), and I became president of the Southwestern Chapter of the PSEA student organization and attended various conferences. So when I came to West Virginia, I quickly joined the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA). It was kind of a no-brainer. That’s what I knew.
To be a teacher you really have to love it. And there’s a lot of work involved on top of being in the classroom. We coach sports teams. We support extracurricular clubs. We tutor students. The workday does not end when the bell rings at 3 p.m. When I go to the grocery store, the people I run into know that my identity is being a teacher, and that’s what we talk about. And if you have your own kids, there you are sitting at gymnastics practice for three hours later in the day, trying to make sure their homework gets done and they eat. And some teachers still work other jobs to make ends meet.
People in other professions with comparable degrees make 21 percent more on average than teachers do.9 I mean, that’s the reality of the life that a teacher lives.
Knowing this, our union local supports students who are striving to become teachers. They can join the local as students. Then, when they graduate, they start paying dues and become full members. That’s how I started out. And it isn’t just about the union defending us when things go wrong. You get a mentor to guide you through the process, materials to help you unpack the standards that you have to go through. And our union does protect us, advocating for our students and our livelihoods. For me, it was the only option. Growing up with my parents, I knew I was always going to be a member of the teachers union.
I’d seen my dad on the picket line growing up. He worked in a steel mill in Pennsylvania and so was part of a traditional union. My grandparents had worked there too as well as a few of my uncles. I only saw my dad on strike at the mill one time, for better health care and compensation. That was when I first experienced what it meant to fight for something you truly, wholeheartedly believe in—something that you would put it all on the line for, including your job.
When it came time for me to act with my union, my dad and I had a lot to talk about. West Virginia legislators were trying to limit our health care, making us pay more for less. And they were attempting to force us to use this app on our phones to track all sorts of personal information that could be used to cut benefits even more. And all of this was done while legislators tried to introduce charter schools into a state where we had not had them before. I knew I had my dad’s support when we decided to walk out.
I had members come to me crying when they heard we might walk out. When we took a strike vote in Morgantown, one lady came to me in tears and said, “You know, at some point I have to ask myself, why am I still doing this? You know, is this the right thing to do?” As a leader and president of her local, I just had to listen. I had teachers in my local who were in different places. Some were like, “Let’s walk out tomorrow!” And others were not supportive. I had to listen to all of them. Democracy is messy. But I wasn’t scared. My dad reminded me from the get-go, “You do what you have to do, and I’ll do what I have to do to make sure you’re okay.”
Not everyone had my experience, and many of the teachers in my local were worried. People with young kids were worried about the state docking their pay. But at the end of the day, they knew what we were all up against. Teachers who cannot take care of themselves cannot take care of their students. And that’s why most of us became teachers. So they were willing to stand with the majority. Only a few people declined to show up during the walkout. We were just doing what we had to do at the time. That’s how important this was for us.
It was such a whirlwind. We had never really been in this situation before, not ever. We just had to put one foot in front of the other and do what we had to do to stop the attacks on public education. They were trying to cut back our health care, which is provided through the Public Employees’ Insurance Agency. They were asking us to use this app called Go 365 that was invasive. It pretty much wanted you to share your whole life history down to your underwear size, and that really shook people. For years, public employees have taken hits to our health insurance, making up the difference with our own money. Funding for public education in West Virginia hasn’t changed significantly in forty years, and now this?
Mitch Carmichael, the president of the state senate, and others had this task force that held twenty-one meetings all over the state to make recommendations about funding for public education—and particularly for our healthcare—to the legislature. WVEA president Dale Lee also served on the task force. So many people testified at meetings that went on for hours. And when it was all said and done, Carmichael said he didn’t have enough data. How many people do you really need to tell you the same exact thing? That was when the dam broke. It was at that point I realized that I’m not giving up. I’m going to fight even harder. There’s no way to get through to these people. Nothing I’m going to say or do, even putting proof right in front of them, is going to change their minds about what they’re doing. We were done talking.
My church was somewhat divided. Some of the members were not supportive of what we were doing. It’s not a large church, so it was tense for a moment. It was hard because I was close to many people there. Some of them used to watch my children. I felt judged, like I was being a bad mom for walking out with our union. So at first I kept very quiet.
At the same time, many of us were getting worried because some of our students wouldn’t get enough food to eat during the work stoppage. One Sunday, Pastor Brad stood up and said that we as a church support people and organizations that are trying to fight for fair wages, and our doors are always open. He asked everyone in their hearts to seek understanding. I’ll never forget him saying that. Afterward our church joined many others in opening our doors to help the teachers and families impacted by the walkout. Our church basement stored food for families to come and pick up if they needed it. And we let one of the schools set up shop in our parking lot.
We mobilized to the state capital. We marched and spoke with every state legislator in Charleston. We had a constant presence and a lot of support. So many other labor organizations came out and stood alongside us. Elected officials, pastors, parents, and some of the high school kids came. Even the superintendents of each school system came out and spoke in support of us.
Ultimately we got the legislators to back down from changing our health care. And we won a 5 percent raise for all state employees in West Virginia. This was a big victory for the people of West Virginia. Had we not succeeded, the money the state would have saved by not giving us raises and cutting our health benefits would have headed to a bunch of big gas companies to do their worst with it.
We didn’t realize how significant our victory was outside of West Virginia until later. We were just in our little bubble trying to protect public education. At some point I looked up to see four hundred pizzas roll into the capital building, sent by someone in California. And we were like, this is affecting other people. That is a moment I really remember.
I also remember sitting outside of the capital, shaking with my phone in my hand because I’d been asked to talk to CNN about what was happening and they were about to call me. I did not think I was ready for this. I felt unprepared, like I’m just a teacher, you know? Being in a classroom with twenty-seven kids is not the same as being on CNN Headline News to talk to that kind of audience. But I’m telling you now, the fact that I honestly believed in what we were doing made it easier for me. One of my colleagues reminded me that leaders aren’t asked, they are chosen. So I stopped shaking and answered the phone.
Obviously this was also a huge victory for us. It showed many of us what it meant to become more active in the democratic process. I’ve seen an increase in interest from members in my local about who to vote for politically, but maybe more important, an interest in being an active member of the union—just showing up to meetings and participating in union discussions and decisions at our delegate assembly. We have that assembly every year at WVEA, and it follows the democratic process. Any member who is an elected delegate can speak and be a part of making our legislative agenda for the year. I saw people go from seeing that as just another long faculty meeting to feeling energized by being clued into what’s going on and having a say in the democratic process. After our victory in 2018, they became aware that they had leadership abilities they did not know they had. They had to see themselves as having that leadership capacity, whether as a building representative or a county president or in some state office. So, our success helped a lot of people recognize their own leadership potential.
To be quite honest, I never saw myself as a political person, at least not until I realized what that really meant. It’s not that I didn’t think politics was important. I just didn’t think I had the time to be active in this way. But politics came to mean standing up for my life, my livelihood, my profession.
I remember another teacher had put up a snapshot on her social media feed about how the state was trying to lower Environmental Protection Act standards in the drinking water for West Virginia back to 1985 levels. I remember it because in my science class the students were discussing Earth’s water. So I used the posting to spark conversation in my class. We are careful about not pushing our opinions on students. I don’t want to tread on ideals that might be different than mine. I want them to be able to form their own opinions about things. In that discussion, I think we all came to agree—me included—that even if you think you’re far removed from something, chances are it’s happening right in your backyard. You know, if you’re not at the table, then you’re probably on the menu.
What a lot of people don’t understand about educators is that we are not just defending our jobs. We are defending the institutions that educate our children. Public schools were set up for a democratic republic, to make a democratic citizenry knowledgeable, and to ensure that by the end of their educational career they were good public citizens. So, the teachers unions are really wrapped up directly in the pillars of our republic. We were clear that our unions were defending public education. What was unclear was what the charter school coalitions were defending and what the state legislators were defending. If those groups aren’t standing up for the democratic pillars of our republic, someone must do it, and that’s us. Within a profession like ours, the union protects not only your job but also this thing that we all love and value—the institution of public education and its role in shaping our democracy. Whether you legally have collective bargaining rights or not is far from the issue when your purpose is to defend the institution.
I see a difference between some of the work we do and the general idea of the blue-collar union. We also protect our rights, yes. But it’s about more than that. It’s about defending the institution of public education. I guess you could call us the standard-bearers of public education and defending our children. We’re not just fighting for ourselves alone. When steel workers go on strike, like some of my relatives back in Pittsburgh, they’re not trying to defend the steel company. In fact, they’re fighting against that company for fair compensation when it’s in the company’s interest to take advantage of them—to increase profits by paying employees less. But it’s different for teachers and educators. We defend public schools, our employer. We fight to strengthen public education. Improving conditions for teachers makes public education better for everyone.
If it were up to us we would increase state funding per pupil in public schools. We would have full-time school counselors whose sole job was to work with the children. We’d have social workers in every school because we all need help addressing this opioid crisis. And instead of bringing in charter schools, we would establish community schools with wraparound services with doctors and other programs children and their families need. We have empirical data that this model has worked in other places and similar data showing that charter schools do not. Again, we want what is best for our students, and it continues to be clear to us that this requires us to strengthen our public institutions.
There are people dying and these legislators sit up on a panel passing judgment. I’m not saying they’re the enemy or bad people, but once they leave, Christmas is still coming to their family. The Easter Bunny is still coming to their families. Meanwhile, we’re teaching while also providing students with pencils and making sure they have something to eat.
I’m just a normal person, and I get tired of it. Sometimes I want to be able to go into my classroom and just teach my kids. I don’t want to have to continually fight tooth and nail for every scrap that the legislature decides to throw us. These kids are the future of West Virginia, and the legislature keeps taking funding away from our future. We’ve got kids living with their grandparents because their parents are absent or in jail or addicted to drugs.
I had a child coming to my class every day and sleeping through it. Around Christmas that year I finally just asked him if he had a bed. He kind of looked at me and was like, “yeah.” And I said, “Do you have blankets and a pillow? I’m willing to buy you some if you don’t have one, so you need to tell me.” And he said he had them.
But now that student will come to me and say, “Mrs. Nestor, I’m hungry,” knowing that I keep a little stash of food in my classroom. Those are the kinds of things teachers do every day. And that’s far removed from how some of our legislators are acting, assuming that, “Well, the gas company is helping fund my campaign, so I’m not going to do anything.” Our union helps us ensure that our values prevail, not those values. And that’s why, despite being tired, I am still active in my union.
We may not have collective bargaining rights in West Virginia but our union is strong. We stand together. We recognize that we are a part of something greater than ourselves. We’re part of an educational community. Some people are leaders in their schools, building representatives who everyone knows they can go to with questions. Others just listen.
That’s what’s great about our democratic process. You can debate and argue it and come up with some kind of consensus. Last year the consensus was, no, we’re not going to go back to school. Next time may be different. The dissenters aren’t bad on either side of the spectrum. I think that their positions are very valid. But you have to be a part of the process and recognize the structure that was set in place so that everyone has a voice—to prevent one group from becoming an oligarchy.
I worry sometimes that people like to romanticize our grassroots movements as if there is no structure, like it’s all just spontaneous. If you get rid of unions and try to imagine something that seems completely grassroots with no leadership at the top, it doesn’t work in practice. Not everyone would have their say or ability to speak up. That’s why we have unions, so we can have that democratic process in place. We have a framework where you run the gamut of members, those who want to go out tomorrow and those who are afraid to go on strike, people of all political persuasions, just like a voting public, right? You have conservative people and you have liberal people, but at the end of the day, because of our democratic process, we can make decisions. That’s why we can have elected positions in a union that are going to speak on behalf of us based on our collective voice. We have representatives there at the negotiating table that hold everyone’s best interest. That’s why democratic processes and frameworks are important, and why the structures that our unions have in place are important.
I’ve heard unions called schools of democracy before. And that makes sense to me, because our unions create a place where we actively do democracy, even when it’s messy.
West Virginia is just one example of a place where people who are usually labeled as conservative are organizing themselves and taking bold stands to defend their rights and to bring economic democracy to their communities. One way to understand how this is happening is to begin viewing our country through the lens of a new map.
Elections matter, and the red state–blue state divide that political pundits, television commentators, and politicians themselves like to focus on is a real one. But elections are not the only source of power in our country. Working people want more than competent elected officials. They seek the ability to govern in ways that maximize everyone’s democratic participation and practice—at work and in their communities. To see how this dynamic plays out, we need a map that defines states not by the political leanings of their congressional delegations but by their relationship to twentieth-century democracy—both political and economic—and the protections it created for collective bargaining and workers’ rights. Figure 7.2 offers such a map.
This new map categorizes states into several distinct categories.
First, there are the states that still have robust infrastructure and protections for working people’s rights to vote and collectively bargain, based on twentieth-century laws and regulations. These states are shown in the lightest gray shading. States like New York, Massachusetts, and California still have robust union density. Their state political parties conduct contentious primary elections in which viable left-leaning candidates often participate. And these states boast a rich tradition of groups representing a popular majoritarian ideology that influences public opinion about the role of government, corporations, development, and workplace democracy. These states are not without problems. But working people can sometimes win using twentieth-century frameworks for democracy, particularly the protections of the NLRA.
States shown in the medium gray shading have some of the same characteristics, but they are in constant struggles against right-wing politicians and organizations to maintain them. For example, legislators in Missouri have been trying for years to pass a right-to-work law that would cripple unions. In 2017, they finally succeeded—but in 2018, through a ballot initiative, the voters of the state overturned the law.
In both the light gray and medium gray shaded states the working majority can continue to exercise power through the current channels and institutions. We can still win using existing rules to make our values real in the world. We can also experiment with new frameworks to expand how people collectively negotiate, including incorporating struggles from outside of the workplace into traditional collective bargaining.
The states shown with black shading have experienced a recent rapid erosion of protections for the voting and bargaining rights they enjoyed in the twentieth century. Individuals in these areas still have a communal memory of the power they used to have before the plants closed, the unions were busted, and the laws were changed. Members of these communities are often angry, skeptical about the old institutions that betrayed them, and hesitant about embracing untested strategies for regaining power.
As a result, organizers in these states find themselves having conversations like the one author Erica Smiley had with a laid-off manufacturing worker in Michigan. When Smiley asked him what he thought about raising the minimum wage, he responded disgustedly, “I used to make $42 an hour. We don’t need a minimum wage! We need our jobs back!”10
In the states with black shading working people can still sometimes win based on the twentieth-century rules, though the opportunities to do so are becoming scarce. Movement leaders must build campaigns that are sensitive to what working people have recently lost while helping them accept that the old system did not work. Such efforts can yield small victories to rebuild momentum and morale while also building organization, especially as communities in these regions recognize and relate to various traditional cultures of organizing. This is the necessary foundation for creating a new framework for organizing and collective bargaining.
The states with white and dark gray shading have been written off for generations by national progressive actors. These states have long lost most twentieth-century protections for workers—if they ever had them. Most working people in these states have little to lose. Perhaps partly as a result of this reality, these state activists who have come together to struggle against the existing power structure often demand far more than access to the twentieth-century framework of organizing, collective bargaining, and voting.
The southern states in particular are where some of today’s most exciting and militant upsurges are happening. As the West Virginia teachers’ story suggests, public-sector workers are among those becoming newly mobilized in these and other states. Several public-sector unions have reported significant growth of volunteer membership in states with extremely regressive labor laws, even in the face of looming threats to their right to organize in the form of US Supreme Court cases like Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association and Janus v. AFSCME Council 31.11 Workers in these states often feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, which makes them psychologically ready to take bigger chances, reach for larger goals, and seek greater victories that go far beyond their immediate personal needs. In states like Georgia, workers are not only demanding the repeal of state right-to-work laws and protections for voting rights but also insisting that the people they represent who live, work, worship, and play in the state be able to have a collective democratic voice in how the state is run.
What is important for progressive organizers in these previously dismissed states is to support and reinforce local struggles in which working people are exposing the failings of the existing regimes and structures while also seeking to establish modern rules for governing, voting, organizing, and collective bargaining—essentially, the foundations of democracy. Coordinated victories in these states could change the national narrative, creating enormous new momentum behind the growth of working-class organizations.
Through the lens of this new map, the recent upsurge of activism among teachers and many others who reside outside the traditionally progressive states is not surprising at all. Thanks to working people, many areas ignored by the national political power brokers are becoming frontline sites for twenty-first-century movement-building. It is time to dedicate organizing resources to these regions, during both election years and off-years, in an effort to build political and economic power for the everyday people of these states. No working-class community should be left behind in defining the future of democracy.