West Virginia Teachers Are Staging a Statewide Strike. Here’s Why.

Michael Arria February 20, 2018

“The entire state of West Virginia will be shut down,” says Dale Lee, the president of the West Virginia Education Association. (AFT-WV / Facebook)

Update: On Feb. 22, teach­ers across West Vir­ginia walked out on strike, clos­ing down every pub­lic school in the state. 

Teach­ers and ser­vice per­son­nel across West Vir­ginia are plan­ning to strike on Feb. 22 and 23 in an effort to boost pay and low­er their increas­ing health­care costs. It will be the first statewide walk­out in near­ly 30 years.

The strike was announced by the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers-West Vir­ginia and the West Vir­ginia Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (WVEA) dur­ing a week­end ral­ly at the state capi­tol in Charleston that attract­ed teach­ers and oth­er pub­lic sec­tor employ­ees and sup­port­ers. Hun­dreds also showed up at the capi­tol on Feb. 2, where they sang Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, hey, hey, good­bye!” while Tim Arm­stead, Repub­li­can Speak­er of the W.V. House of Del­e­gates, gave a speech on the House floor. At this past weekend’s ral­ly, WVEA Pres­i­dent Dale Lee declared that all 55 of the state’s coun­ties were pre­pared to stand unit­ed. The entire state of West Vir­ginia will be shut down,” declared Lee, whose union is an affil­i­ate of the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Association.

Accord­ing to a 2017 study that ranked each state’s aver­age teacher salary, West Vir­ginia is the sixth worst in the coun­try. On aver­age, the state’s teach­ers make $45,477, com­pared to first-place-rank­ing Alas­ka, where teach­ers make $77,843. W.V. teach­ers want the state to fund the state’s Pub­lic Employ­ee Insur­ance Agency (PEIA) and increase their salaries. The state’s House of Del­e­gates has vot­ed to give pub­lic school teach­ers 2‑percent rais­es next year and a 1‑percent raise over the next three years, while the state’s Sen­ate has approved a 1‑percent raise, every year, over the next five years. Union rep­re­sen­ta­tives believe these rais­es are inad­e­quate, espe­cial­ly when con­sid­ered along­side the ris­ing costs of healthcare.

Kym Ran­dolph, direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the WVEA, tells In These Times that dis­sat­is­fac­tion has been brew­ing for years. It’s a num­ber of things,” says Ran­dolph. PEIA, lack of salary, years of neglect, anti-work­er poli­cies … health­care that’s inad­e­quate.” Accord­ing to Ran­dolph, law­mak­ers have become entrenched” on the issue of teacher salaries and are dif­fi­cult to persuade.

One of those law­mak­ers is Repub­li­can Gov. Jim Jus­tice. He has pro­posed freez­ing PEIA for a year, effec­tive­ly pre­vent­ing health pre­mi­ums from ris­ing, and he doesn’t believe that the 1‑percent raise, every year, over the course of five years should be increased in any way. I think the pru­dent thing and the smart mon­ey is to fix PEIA like we’ve done, and the smart mon­ey is to stay at 11111,” said Jus­tice at a recent press con­fer­ence. How­ev­er, his crit­ics point out that a PEIA freeze is mere­ly a short-term solu­tion for a prob­lem that isn’t going away, and such a tem­po­rary action could give birth to even high­er health­care costs in 2019. The teach­ers are look­ing for a long-term plan that pro­vides secu­ri­ty while final­ly mak­ing salaries competitive.

In that same press con­fer­ence, Jus­tice said that a teach­ers’ strike would be a cry­ing shame.” He also dis­missed a Sen­ate Demo­c­rat pro­pos­al that would fund PEIA by rais­ing the state’s sev­er­ance tax on nat­ur­al gas as polit­i­cal grandstanding.”

West Vir­ginia is often por­trayed as a stead­fast­ly Repub­li­can state where pro­gres­sive devel­op­ments are near­ly impos­si­ble. Near­ly 70 per­cent of the state vot­ed for Trump, who promised to revive the floun­der­ing coal indus­try, and the state’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­a­tor Joe Manchin votes in line with Trump almost 60 per­cent of the time.

How­ev­er, a deep­er analy­sis of the state’s cur­rent pol­i­tics reveals a slight­ly more nuanced pic­ture. Bernie Sanders won all 55 coun­ties in the 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic Pri­ma­ry, and recent data sug­gests that sup­port for Trump is actu­al­ly drop­ping. Between Jan­u­ary and Sep­tem­ber of 2017, Trump’s lev­el of net sup­port in West Vir­ginia went down by 13 points. Last month, Paula Jean Swearen­gin, a pro­gres­sive Demo­c­rat who is run­ning against Manchin in the pri­ma­ry, told In These Times, We have fought so many labor strug­gles and won. This nation and state deserve true democ­ra­cy. … We all strug­gle and are going to fight like hell. I believe a new West Vir­ginia is being born.”

Swearengin’s asser­tion will be put to the test in the com­ing months as the state’s teach­ers con­tin­ue to fight, through the walk­out and beyond. I think what the Leg­is­la­ture is doing is just despi­ca­ble,” a high school sci­ence teacher named Lisa Stil­lion told West Vir­ginia Pub­lic Radio at last week’s ral­ly. We need to vote them out. Get your heads out of your rear ends; be think­ing about who you rep­re­sent. You work for us. We don’t work for you.”

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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