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Why is organized labor so active in Trump country?

Partisanship is weak in West Virginia, creating grounds for labor activism even in a conservative state.

Jennifer Hanner, a first-year teacher from Harts, W.Va., center, holds a sign Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, outside the state Senate chambers at the Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. Teachers statewide went on strike Thursday over pay and benefits.  John Raby/AP

Much has been written about the decline of organized labor across the country. Yet unions are showing surprising recent strength in an unexpected location — deeply red West Virginia — where a nine-day strike involving teachers in all of the state’s 55 school districts resulted in a 5 percent pay raise. Why is this happening there? Part of the story, it turns out, has to do with weak partisanship.

Donald Trump won 68.7 percent of the vote in West Virginia, making the state second only to Wyoming in terms of Trump support. At the more local level, support for Trump exceeded 80 percent in many southern counties where mining has played an important role in local economies.

Many people are familiar with the historic union presence in the state, which organized around the coal mining industry. However, West Virginia recently became a right-to-work state, signaling a weakening of union power in state politics. None of this suggests fertile ground for union action, yet the teachers strike has proven that a large-scale, coordinated collective action campaign can be successful — even under these conditions.

How have West Virginia’s teachers managed to pull off this large-scale collective action campaign? Partisanship is playing an important, but overlooked, role here. Partisanship in the state is in flux. Since 1994, the share of Republicans among the state’s registered voters has held steady at around 30 percent. At the same time, the Democratic share has dropped from 65 to 45 percent, while the independent share has soared from 4 percent to 21 percent.

Because it’s an anomaly in this era of hyperpartisanship, looking at labor in West Virginia is useful for thinking about the limits of partisanship and the cross-pressures that can work against party loyalty. Weak partisanship explains a number of developments in West Virginia politics that have been punchlines for the national media — such as Gov. Jim Justice’s high-profile switch from the Democratic to Republican Party in 2017 — or the source of consternation for Democrats nationwide, like Sen. Joe Manchin’s mixed voting record.

It also explains why a coordinated labor action is possible in West Virginia. People often rely on stereotypes about the region to explain these inconsistencies, but weak partisanship gets us further than redneck jokes and “what’s the matter with Kansas” types of arguments.

Why is partisanship weak in West Virginia? Historically, it’s been a solidly Democratic state, with an entrenched Democratic Party machine. Since 2000, the state has gone to Republican presidential candidates, while Democrats have been more successful in down-ballot races. Democrats held a 14-year trifecta from 2001 to 2014 — controlling the governorship, the House of Delegates, and the state Senate — and as of August 2017, this has shifted to a Republican trifecta.

These changes have led some party scholars to conclude that West Virginia is simply late to the Southern realignment. But the teachers strike points to a more incomplete realignment, suggesting that factors at the state level are working against an increasingly conservative state mood.

One of these factors may be incomplete party sorting. Research shows that party identification is brought in line with issue positions over time, resulting in more sorted or homogeneous parties. Having been until fairly recently a one-party state means that the fit between party and policy preferences isn’t strong or exact within West Virginia.

Mixed signals from party elites are likely a contributing factor. Labor in the state is generally aligned with the Democratic Party. Most of the unions endorsed Jim Justice for governor in 2016, when he was still a Democrat. But there are some key Republicans in the state who are also labor-aligned (such as Erikka Storch from Ohio County), which could contribute to some fracturing within expected coalitions.

Even in one-party states that have remained solidly Democratic, such as Rhode Island and Hawaii, a more conservative faction can gain control of the legislature, meaning that policymaking doesn’t align with party as neatly as one would expect when looking through a national lens.

The strike action was driven most intensely by teachers in West Virginia’s southern counties — in areas that used to be the state’s strongest Democratic base but are now among Trump’s most ardent supporters. Given this rapid partisan shift, it seems plausible that partisanship here is exceptionally weak, even by West Virginia standards. Both parties are activated here, seeing more at stake and facing more economic uncertainty than is present in much of the rest of the country. It’s also notable that the two Republicans who’ve been splitting with their party on some of the key votes surrounding teacher benefits and compensation in the state Senate (Karen Arvon and Kenny Mann) are both from southern counties.

The teachers unions first gained the support of Republican Gov. Jim Justice and the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. Both favored the 5 percent raise and have promised to work out a long-term solution to the health insurance problem. But they faced an uphill battle in the Senate, where Senate President Mitch Carmichael seemed determined not to concede the 5 percent.

Carmichael is likely to contest Justice for the governorship in the near future, and his opposition likely relates to his political ambitions. The conflict came to a head after a chaotic session Saturday evening, in which the Senate accidentally voted to support the 5 percent raise while thinking they were voting on a 4 percent raise, then walked it back. Yesterday, the Senate finally agreed to the 5 percent raise, which is widely viewed as a major victory for the teachers and other state employees, who will also see a pay increase.

The strike has captured national attention, and teachers in Oklahoma (which is also a right-to-work state) may soon follow the West Virginia teachers’ lead. Like West Virginians, Oklahomans have a long history of voting for Republican presidential candidates, but Republican control at the state level has only been consistent since 2010. In addition, four seats in the House and Senate flipped from Republican to Democrat in special elections in 2017, suggesting similar dynamics may be at play in both states.

It is not clear how long West Virginia’s weak partisanship will last or whether it extends to a wide range of issues. It’s possible, for example, that the heightened salience of abortion politics will push some independents into the Republican camp. But for now, the state remains fertile ground for those willing to do some unconventional political organizing.

Erin C. Cassese and R. Scott Crichlow are associate professors of political science at West Virginia University.