On February 22nd, schools in West Virginia were closed as there was nobody to teach in them:
Teachers across West Virginia walked off the job Thursday amid a dispute over pay and benefits, causing more than 277,000 public school students to miss classes even as educators swarmed the state Capitol in Charleston to protest.
All 55 counties in the state closed schools during Thursday’s work stoppage, Alyssa Keedy, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Education, said.
“Work stoppages by public employees are not lawful in West Virginia and will have a negative impact on student instruction and classroom time,” West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine said in a statement this week. “Families will be forced to seek out alternative safe locations for their children, and our many students who depend on schools for daily nutrition will face an additional burden. I encourage our educators to advocate for the benefits they deserve, but to seek courses of action that have the least possible disruption for our students.” […]
Thousands of demonstrators flooded the state’s Capitol on Thursday, said Kym Randolph, West Virginia Education Association director of communication. Lines snaked around the building, she said, with some people waiting more than two hours to get in. The crowd was mostly constituted of teachers, but included parents and students, she said.
“The place was packed,” Randolph said. “It was very loud. That is by far the largest crowd inside the Capitol in a long, long time.”
At issue was a miniscule annual raise for teachers that are already among the least well paid in the country. After four days, there was a deal struck with the governor (Jim Justice, elected as a Democrat but changed parties) that was supposed to re-open them, but the legislature didn’t move quickly enough and the teachers kept their strike going. The legislature has tried to give them something, but teachers are holding out for what was agreed to. They’re almost certain to get it.
West Virginia has become a subject of fascination with the national media since the rise of Trump, as the state has become emblematic of his blue collar supporters in the same way that coal miners became about more than just coal miners. Which has lead some to wonder why this story wasn’t getting more attention than it was:
NYT: We need to find out what makes middle America tick
Me: WV teachers are on strike
NYT: why don’t we ask a Nazi what they like on their pizza
— Sproronoco Flow (@SproBeforeBros) March 3, 2018
Now, it should be noted that the original article linked to in this post is from the Washington Post, one of our four truly national papers. So it isn’t like it wasn’t getting any coverage. But West Virginia is in DC’s back yard – which is one of the reasons it has gotten attention with regard to Trump, as well – and a part of the state is even in DC’s media footprint (meaning the Washington Post has delivery and they get DC’s local channels on cable). Little coverage in the New York Times. The Chicago teacher’s strike from a few years ago, despite having roughly the same number of teachers, got a lot more attention than this. By the time the complaint really took hold, the issue had actually been addressed by the media. But unlike with Chicago there was next to nothing before the strike and little for the first week of it.
So what gives?
I think a few factors explain the difference in the amount of coverage it got compared to West Virginians sitting in diners pontificating about contemporary race relations, and urban teacher strikes. Chicago got more attention in part because it has more people, and because it gets more attention even if you try to control for population size. So generally speaking everything that happens there gets more attention. The exception, the uptick of interest in West Virginia and western Pennsylvania and similar places, is to a degree an over-correction of that. The media is fascinated with truck stop pontificators in large part because they are different and exotic. Teachers asking for more money? That’s not new or interesting. Or, as Vikram put it:
Reason #2 is that teachers striking in West Virginia is pretty understandable. There’s no puzzle there. In contrast, many of us still can’t quite grok the mind of a Trump supporter
— Vikram Bath1 (@vikrambath1) March 4, 2018
Even so, once the discrepancy was pointed out to the media, they lept into action and the story has been covered since. At that point, the criticism of the media shifted to suggest that they’re sympathetic to the bus stop bigots while playing it neutral to the teachers strike. To be honest, that’s not what I am seeing at all. The media portrayal has been remarkably sympathetic to the teachers and unsympathetic to the state. Either it’s bias or the situation is actually that straightforward with teachers in white hats and state legislators in black ones. It might be tempting to chalk this up to media bias, but this wasn’t the case in the Chicago strike, where the media’s portrayal leaned heavily towards Rahm Emmanuel.
So… why? I really don’t know, but here are some reasons:
- A Strong Case: Maybe the West Virginia teachers just have a stronger case than the Chicago ones did, at least superficially. While some of the talk about West Virginia teachers making “poverty wages” is wrong and offensive, Chicago teachers start at $50k a year compared to $32k for West Virginia. Cost of living almost certainly eats a lot of that up, but (a) the media is often bad about taking that into account, and (b) even if you account for cost of living West Virginia teachers are paid less than teachers in neighboring and peer states. Further, West Virginia teachers are asking for less than the Chicago teachers settled for.
- Public Support: Related to the first one, the teachers in West Virginia have a lot of public support, while public opinion in Chicago was somewhat more mixed. Teachers themselves evidently did have public support, but the media thought otherwise.
- Worse Opposition: Rahm Emanuel and his administration were the face of the opposition to the teachers. He may not have been the most likeable guy, but he was out there making his case. Nobody is making the case against the teachers in West Virginia. The Republican legislators are mostly quiet, or just arguing that the strike itself is illegal rather than just unmerited. (They’re not wrong, it is illegal, but a law that has no enforcement mechanism isn’t a law). And so the microphone is more or less ceded to the teachers, their union, and parents who support them.
- Better PR: It never hurts to have stories like this. And while the legislature is failing to make its case, the schools are calling parents every single night to let them know that school will not be resuming, and every time they call they slip some advantageous messaging in there.
- Media Bias: The media leans left and has a particular fondness for center-left technocrats and Democrats who’ve been associated with the Obama Administration. Meanwhile, they don’t like West Virginia Republicans. Rahm got a benefit of the doubt that Justice and state legislators did not.
- A Change In Mood: Attitudes towards governmental authority in general can change depending on whether the president is someone like Barack Obama or Donald Trump. So things like protesting are viewed differently. This one is not unrelated to the previous two.
- Racism: The teachers in West Virginia are overwhelmingly white. The teachers in Chicago aren’t. Whiteness is associated with middle class, and while West Virginians in general may get the bone-in-the-nose treatment from urban media outlets, teachers tend to be a comforting familiar sort of white: Educated, articulate, liberal. Easier for white, educated, liberal reporters to approach and talk to. Meanwhile, they are less comfortable with teachers in Chicago. And just as the “mood” might change depending on the face of government, it might also change by the face of the protesters.
As of the writing of this post, no conclusion has been reached. Oklahoma may be next. Will the media be there for it?
Image by darinrmcclure