In 2018, a West Virginia teacher’s secret Facebook group sparked a “union renaissance” in the tradition of early twentieth-century labor activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones
By Jeffrey Webb
The Chicago Teachers Union has made a lot of headlines in recent years, striking twice in the last decade and nearly doing so again earlier this year. In February, CTU’s twenty-five thousand members faced off with Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district, over school reopening concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A strike seemed inevitable before CTU and CPS finally reached an agreement, ensuring priority vaccination for school employees and delaying most school reopenings to March.
CTU’s demand for a safe workplace recalls demands made a century earlier on the behalf of factory workers and miners by the famed labor activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. In fact, Jones—who was born in Ireland but lived in Chicago for many years and is buried in Mount Olive, Illinois—became an unofficial mascot for CTU’s most recent strike in October 2019. During the fourteen-day strike, Chicago teacher Les Plewa transported a balloon of Jones’s likeness throughout the city to various marches and rallies. The balloon was between twelve and fifteen feet tall. “I realized we needed something to get people’s attention,” Plewa told me. He said Jones’s message to workers today would be the same as it was a hundred years ago: “Fight like hell.”
Mother Jones’s legacy is not just confined to the Windy City. In West Virginia, my home state, Jones is something of a folk hero. She first came to our coalfields here in December 1900. For the next two decades, she was in-and-out of the Mountain State, preaching to the hard-bitten miners, as she writes in her autobiography, “the gospel of unionization.” Twice her rabble-rousing got her arrested. In a Parkersburg courthouse, a prosecuting attorney pointed his finger at her and said, “There is the most dangerous woman in the country today.”
At the time, Jones was nearly seventy years old, but the prosecutor wasn’t wrong. While she was frail in body, Jones made up for it by being strong in word and spirit. She spoke with a fiery conviction which gave birth to a militant unionism in West Virginia.“These fights must be won if it costs the whole country to win them,” Jones once said in a speech to the United Mine Workers of America. “These fights against the oppressor and the capitalists, the ruling classes, must be won if it takes us all to do it.”
Her words inspired local miners to step up and organize. This resulted in the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike of 1912-13. A through line can be traced from this strike to 1920’s Matewan Massacre, when Matewan police chief Sid Hatfield and a group of union miners found themselves in a shoot-out with Baldwin-Felts detectives contracted to the mine operators. Things boiled over in 1921 with the Battle of Blair Mountain, in which thousands of union miners armed themselves and marched against company men and local and state law enforcement. It has been called the largest armed uprising in our nation’s history since the Civil War.
A century later, and many of the state’s once booming coal towns have been reduced to ghost towns. Coal jobs are on the decline. However, that fighting spirit of Mother Jones—that spirit of unionism and defiance—still haunts the hills and hollows of West Virginia, just as it still haunts the streets of Chicago. Nearly a hundred years after her death. and Mother Jones hasn’t stopped inspiring workers to fight for what’s right—notably in the 2018 teachers’ strike, which reignited a “union renaissance” among educators in the country. Just as Jones inspired a generation of coal miners to organize, so too did the 2018 movement inspire a whole generation of teachers to do the same.
When Jay O’Neal moved to West Virginia in 2015, he knew next to nothing to about the labor history of the region. O’Neal is a social studies teacher at West Side Middle School in Charleston, West Virginia. A native of Amarillo, Texas, he has lived and worked in regions all across the country. For a few years, he was in San Francisco. Another year, Pittsburgh. Teaching in those urban school districts exposed him to ideas quite different from what he saw when he got to West Virginia, a state where public employees do not have the right to collective bargaining. “I saw how much better teaching could be,” O’Neal said, explaining the strength of teacher unions he encountered in San Francisco and Pittsburgh, the strength of a union like CTU.
O’Neal initially found such strength lacking in West Virginia. But then he read the book The Devil is Here in These Hills by James Green, a nonfiction work documenting the Mine Wars; Jones is an important figure in the book. O’Neal then enrolled in an online class focused on the subject. The class capped off with a tour of locations like Matewan and Blair Mountain. “It made a big impact on me,” O’Neal said. A few years later he became an instrumental leader in the state’s historic 2018 teachers’ strike.
There are two teachers’ unions in West Virginia: West Virginia Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, and AFT-WV, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Too often, according to O’Neal, these two unions spend time competing for members rather than working together against a common enemy.
In 2017, that common enemy came in the form of the state’s public employee insurance. That year, the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency announced changes resulting in higher costs for those covered by their plans. Many teachers and school service personnel began speaking out against the changes. They began looking for a way to fight back.
O’Neal created the Facebook group “West Virginia Teachers UNITED” in the fall of 2017. He provided a platform for these disparate voices to come together, to organize and speak out, regardless of union affiliation. At first, the group drew little attention. It had maybe fifty members in the early days, but as tensions with PEIA heated up, more and more people joined the group. Emily Comer, another West Virginia teacher, came onboard early and convinced O’Neal the group should be renamed to “West Virginia Public Employees UNITED,” paving the way for an even larger coalition.
In 2018, Comer contributed an essay to Belt Publishing’s 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike. “The solidarity that made this strike possible was not built along party lines,” she wrote, explaining the bipartisan nature of their organizing efforts. “[W]e were united around a set of shared grievances and people came together with little concern for party affiliation. We had a common goal: to win material gains that we deserved, to make our lives better as workers.”
As the Facebook group grew, it caught the attention of state union leaders. O’Neal, a WVEA member, was called in twice to WVEA’s state headquarters to discuss the group and his intentions. Union leadership was “not real thrilled,” O’Neal said.
The group eventually reached twenty thousand members. In fact, as of today, the total count is over twenty-two thousand. The group itself is categorized as secret on Facebook, which means it is only able to be found by nonmembers if a member invites them to join. Such secrecy brings to mind Mother Jones organizing miners in the dark of night, in barns and in the woods on the outskirts of town.
O’Neal and a small team did their best to moderate the group, filtering posts and making sure members were really public employees. Nicole McCormick, a teacher in Fayette County, West Virginia, has been a moderator for WV Public Employees UNITED almost since the beginning. She remembered living with her phone in her hand from fall 2017 up through winter 2018, fielding thousands of requests to join the group.
Nicole’s husband, Matt, is also a teacher and member of the group. In February 2018, Matt posted a picture of a $1.14 checking account balance with the caption, “I call this portrait, ‘Two days until payday on a teacher’s salary.” The response was overwhelming, Matt’s post garnering over a hundred replies. In a show of unity, many on the thread shared their own low balances. “It was very powerful,” Nicole said regarding the response to her husband’s post, “everyone realizing they weren’t broken but the system was.”
On February 2, 2018, teachers walked out of schools in three southern West Virginia counties, prompting the schools to close down temporarily. On February 16, seven counties closed. Messages of support for the protesting counties flooded the group.
On a Sunday afternoon in mid-February, county presidents for both WVEA and AFT-WV met together in a Days Inn conference room in Flatwoods, a small town centrally located in the state. At this meeting, they tallied votes from each county, deciding whether to authorize the unions power to call for a statewide work stoppage. At the end of the tally, support for authorization was unanimous from all fifty-five of the state’s counties. Christine Campbell, then-president of AFT-WV, led those in attendance in singing “Solidarity Forever”—“Solidarity forever,” the song goes, “for the union makes us strong.”
A slogan emerged: “55 Strong.” Unions leaders called for a statewide strike for February 22-23. It lasted nine days. Teachers and school service personnel returning to work on March 6, having achieved some of their demands, though many educators will tell you the gains from the strike were bittersweet. And while the call to strike may have come from the state union presidents, it was momentum from rank-and-file members–many of them members of O’Neal’s Facebook group–which pushed them to do so.
O’Neal remembered, in the weeks prior to the strike, people in the group sharing a variety of action ideas. Some teachers organized walk-ins at their schools. Others organized picketing in their communities. One teacher picketed outside a West Virginia University basketball game in Morgantown. At one point, prior to the strike, teachers in Mingo County wore black, mourning the loss of respect for the teaching profession. In the group, teachers in Logan County posted that they decided to follow Mingo’s example and wear black, too. “They would post photos and others could see it,” O’Neal said, “and then others could take that idea and run with it. They didn’t wait around for permission. They just did it.”
I was a teacher in Upshur County, West Virginia, during the strike. At the time, I was president of the county’s chapter of AFT-WV. I can attest to the influence of WV Public Employees UNITED in how we organized our own protests within the county.
A specific moment stands out in my mind. One afternoon during the strike, I found myself leading a meeting open to all county employees. As the meeting wrapped up, I announced we would host a food drive at each of the county’s two picketing locations. The food collected was then donated to the local food bank and went to feed students missing out on school meals due to the strike. It would be a good way, I figured, to combat public opposition that said we didn’t care about the well-being of our students. I stole this idea from a teacher in another county, who posted it in WV Public Employees UNITED.
Dale Lee, president of WVEA, praised the use of social media in getting out information during the strike, but he said it was “a double-edged sword” as lots of inaccurate information also got posted. As a result, during the strike, WVEA uploaded nightly video updates on their own Facebook page. These videos, according to Lee, garnered as many as thirty or forty thousand views.
Though he championed WVEA’s use of social media, Lee downplayed the role WV Public Employees UNITED had in organizing the strike. “There was a lot of organizing going on long before that group started their page,” he told me. “Even a year before.”
On February 24, 2018, Rebecca Garelli, an Arizona educator, responded to a question posed on Facebook that referenced the West Virginia teachers’ strike. The question, posted on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook page, asked, “What state is going to be next?” Garelli replied, “I wish it was AZ, sigh.” (Garelli, incidentally, grew up in Chicago and, before moving to Arizona, was a Chicago teacher and member of CTU.)
Jay O’Neal saw Garelli’s post. He sent her a message of support. He then invited her to join the WV Public Employees UNITED group. Garelli accepted the invitation and soon created her own group, Arizona Teachers United. This morphed into a page renamed as Arizona Educators United. “I wasn’t alone anymore,” Garelli wrote in a Facebook post reflecting on the experience, adding: “I will never forget the solidarity I experienced early on. When we fight together, we can conquer the seemingly impossible.”
Only a couple months after she connected with O’Neal, Garelli and twenty thousand other Arizona teachers went on strike. “I think Jay and I were supposed to know each other,” Garelli told me as she explained her relationship with O’Neal, attributing it to “a stroke of fate” that they connected on Facebook. It is a relationship that continues to this day, Garelli said. “Our conversations haven’t stopped.”
Arizona was not the only state to follow in West Virginia’s footsteps that year. States like Colorado, Oklahoma, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina all saw statewide strikes in the months following the West Virginia strike. “Arizona wouldn’t have happened without West Virginia,” Garelli said. “Arizona wouldn’t have happened without Jay O’Neal.”
A roadside marker stands in Pratt, West Virginia, off WV 61. It reads: “Labor organizer Mother Jones spent her 84th birthday imprisoned here.” Back in Chicago, a campaign is underway to construct a Mother Jones statue as a monument to the woman herself, to the working class, to the contributions of immigrants in building this country. CTU is one of the principal donors toward the statue campaign. “It’s important having statues that represent communities,” Les Plewa said. “Her statue represents workers fighting for their rights, fighting for respect.”
Mother Jones left her mark on this country—from Pratt, a town with a population somewhere around six hundred, to Chicago, one of our nation’s largest cities. Members of CTU, as well as members of Jay O’Neal’s and Rebecca Garelli’s Facebook groups have followed in her footsteps, organizing into a union that is passionate and strong. A fighting union. Even in death, the presence of Mother Jones can be felt, and perhaps even now, even in death, Mother Jones is still the most dangerous woman in the country. ■
Jeffrey Webb holds an MFA in creative writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College and has written nonfiction for a variety of websites and publications, including JSTOR Daily, Learning for Justice (formerly known as Teaching Tolerance), and Appalachian History.
Cover image by Bloomberg/Getty Images.
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