The saga began in West Virginia. Teacher salaries were stagnant as state legislators continued to defund public education. At the same time, these politicians granted enormous tax breaks to corporations. They also took a pair of scissors to any document that resembled a pro-labor bill. Although anger among educators had brewed for decades, resignation was the norm. When another premium increase for employee health insurance was announced at the end of 2017, few people had any reason to suspect that there would be resistance in West Virginia.
But there was. After two months of protests and strikes, not only did these employees stop the proposed premium increase, they also forced the state to drop its pro–charter school and anti-labor legislation. In the process, they secured a five percent raise for all state employees. Inspired by the victories in West Virginia, teachers and support staff followed suit in Oklahoma and in Arizona, again forcing the hands of their Tea Party–influenced governments. They achieved more in two months than they had in the past two decades.
What propelled the shift from resignation to resistance? Blanc went to these states to get some answers. Through numerous interviews and a discerning attention to broader issues of labor and politics in the United States, he paints a clear portrait of the forces at work in this historic moment. Of note, he traces the influence of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign that popularized an alternative to the status quo. His influence was most felt in West Virginia, where he won every county in the Democratic primary. At the level of action, the Sanders campaign pushed people to get involved in grassroots politics. By the time the health-care premium increases in West Virginia were announced, there were a number of self-identified “democratic socialists” with radical ideas and organizing experience.
In the words of West Virginia teacher Emily Comer:
The role of the Bernie campaign of 2016 on organizing in West Virginia really cannot be overstated. We didn’t have a DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] chapter until Bernie. After his run, a few DSA chapters started to pop up around the state because Bernie’s campaign had gotten folks really excited for class politics. And it got people, especially young people, plugged in who before had been feeling hopeless and who would not have made their way into organizing before.
As for the second question — how did these movements realize victories in the most inhospitable terrain? — Blanc offers a compelling and detailed explanation. Organizers built the community support that compels politicians to bend at the knee. Against smear campaigns that characterized these movements as selfish and inconsiderate to the needs of students, teachers and staff went to great lengths to connect with folks outside the classroom. They took every opportunity to explain to parents that their “working conditions were students’ learning conditions.” They organized walk-ins and large protests. They organized food pantries for students who would lose their free breakfasts and lunches during the strikes. Some teachers even hand-delivered meals to students at their homes. With reelections on the horizon and public sentiment in the strikers’ favor, officials in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona were reluctant to enforce the laws that prevented school employees from walking out. As Blanc reminds us: “If a strike has the organization, momentum, and support of the public at large, it’s more difficult for the ruling elite to crack down.”
Aside from these on-the-ground lessons in organizing — driven home by the case of Oklahoma, which struggled because it lacked the leadership of democratic socialists and relied too much on social media to build support — Red State Revolt speaks to broader strategic issues. Throughout the book, left-of-center dogma is complicated by the statements and experiences of striking teachers. Most significantly, the revolt departed from the widespread commitment to “intersectional,” prefigurative politics on the left, in which racism and all other oppressions must be extinguished before effective action can take place. Hence, it is not uncommon to see circular discussions about privilege. But this often sinks the ship before it can launch.
In these three states where racism is a real force, there were no self-defeating demands for privilege checks or feminist or anti-transphobic commitments. The movements were therefore able to unite people from remarkably different backgrounds. Whites, African Americans, Mexican immigrants, and other people worked together in three states where roughly 40 percent of union members are registered Republicans. To quote Jacqueline Gilliard, an African-American teacher in West Virginia: “[M]y next-door neighbor is a Trump supporter, but she stood right next to me on the picket line. I guess we were able to unite because we had a common goal — if it meant being a little uncomfortable, or being around someone you weren’t used to being around, that was okay.”
In this model of politics, the pursuit of a shared agenda and tolerance for substantive political differences is what binds activists. Solidarity is not realized through confessions of white guilt, the centering of “marginalized voices,” adherence to Marxist/black feminist/whatever orthodoxy, and the various other orthodoxies that are taken for granted in certain corridors of the left. If these organizers had taken their cues from Black Lives Matter — a movement with a network that lacks a chapter in 35 states — and campus activists, their movements would never have gotten off the ground. To borrow an insight from Cedric Johnson, in his magisterial analysis of the white and black residents who came together in the 1990s to halt construction of a polyvinyl chloride plant in Louisiana, racism and other walls crumble when people come together to fight for their common interests.
Ultimately, Red State Revolt should be required reading for anyone who writes off the political possibilities that exist in the most right-wing regions of the United States. In addition, it should be on the bookshelves of those who question “why the Left needs labor to win — and why bringing back the strike is an indispensable and urgent task for anybody interested in creating a better world.” Had these educators and support staff limited themselves to legal means of dissent, their demands never would have been met.
At a moment when the right controls the Oval Office, the Supreme Court, the Senate, and the majority of state legislatures and governorships, the left will do well to remember that public employees are the gears of society, and that their refusal to work will bring society to a halt.
Adam Szetela is a doctoral candidate in the Sociology Department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.