West Virginia Showed How Necessary—And Difficult—Striking Is

“It was exhilarating and exhausting. You start thinking, ‘Are we going to be out forever?’”

Kate Aronoff

Thousands of striking WestVirginia public employees and supporters show their solidarity at the state Capitol February 26. (Photo by Chris Dorst/Charleston Gazette-Mail)

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.VA. — After nine days of arriv­ing at 7 a.m. to the pick­et lines, Emi­ly Com­er, a Span­ish teacher at South Charleston High School, was men­tal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly and phys­i­cal­ly exhausted.”

“They’re trying to divide public employees against the rest of the working class."

Word came on a Tues­day morn­ing that a deal between the state and the strik­ing pub­lic employ­ees was immi­nent. Com­er — sick in bed with a cold — got dressed and went to the Capi­tol atri­um, think­ing, I can­not not be there.”

When Repub­li­can Gov. Jim Jus­tice announced the state had agreed to a 5 per­cent raise, Com­er recalls, I was bawl­ing. Peo­ple were hug­ging each oth­er and cry­ing. Peo­ple were singing ‘[Take Me Home] Coun­try Roads.’”

From Feb­ru­ary 22 to March 6, West Vir­ginia pub­lic employ­ees — led by teach­ers and school sup­port staff — held one of the biggest work actions in recent U.S. his­to­ry, rebuff­ing aus­ter­i­ty and, at points, even the wish­es of their union leaders.

One trig­ger was ris­ing health­care costs. For teach­ers, the strength of their i nsu ra nce plan, admin­is­tered by the Pub­lic Employ­ee Insur­ance Agency (PEIA), served as a trade-off for the fourth-low­est teacher salaries in the nation. But over the last sev­er­al years, pub­lic employ­ees saw more and more of their pay­checks divert­ed into health insur­ance costs.

Comer’s father was a state troop­er, and she has been on PEIA her whole life. It used to be great,” Com­er says, and still, com­pared to pri­vate health insur­ance, it is. It just keeps get­ting more expen­sive every year.”

Momen­tum for the strike began build­ing in the fall, when the PEIA board of direc­tors held a series of hear­ings around the state that drew rau­cous pub­lic com­men­tary. Increas­ing­ly dis­sat­is­fied teach­ers flood­ed into a pri­vate Face­book page called West Vir­ginia Pub­lic Employ­ees Unit­ed.” At first, it was a place to vent. Soon, it became a hub for coor­di­nat­ing statewide actions like let­ter writ­ing. Before long, pub­lic employ­ees began ten­ta­tive­ly dis­cussing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a sus­tained statewide walkout.

Peo­ple were call­ing it the S‑word,’ ” Com­er recalls. It was at a ral­ly at the Capi­tol on Mar­tin Luther King Day that she real­ized the S‑word might become real­i­ty. West Vir­ginia Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent Dale Lee took the mic and, Com­er remem­bers, He actu­al­ly said the word: strike.”

The state leg­is­la­tors present looked alarmed, Com­er recalls.

They had good rea­son. On Feb­ru­ary 2, teach­ers in three coun­ties would stage a one­day walk­out. By the end of the month, schools in all 55 coun­ties were closed for the strike.

In Comer’s dis­trict, strik­ers were out at dawn hold­ing signs along the high­ways. Then they’d head to the Capi­tol to chant and lob­by legislators.

I worked longer days on strike than we do at school,” Com­er says. It was exhil­a­rat­ing and exhaust­ing. You start think­ing, Are we going to be out for­ev­er?’ But I knew that I was not about to give up and would have stayed out as long as needed.”

Three days in, Jus­tice and union lead­ers announced a deal on a raise — but not on PEIA. Teach­ers rebelled, stay­ing off the job in a wild­cat strike.

The final deal looks an awful lot like vic­to­ry: a 5 per­cent pay raise, as opposed to the 1 per­cent raise Jus­tice had pro­posed before the strike, and the cre­ation of a statewide task force to deter­mine PEIA’s future.

How to fund PEIA will be hot­ly debat­ed in the com­ing months by the task force, which is com­posed of union offi­cials, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and insur­ance indus­try reps. Teach­ers want a big­ger sev­er­ance tax on coal and nat­ur­al gas com­pa­nies. Con­ser­v­a­tive law­mak­ers are threat­en­ing to pull the funds from Medicaid.

They’re try­ing to divide pub­lic employ­ees against the rest of the work­ing class,” Com­er says of the law­mak­ers. I just don’t think it’s going to work.”

What­ev­er hap­pens, the West Vir­ginia pub­lic employ­ees have shak­en up the nation. At press time, Okla­homa teach­ers were gear­ing up for their own strike. With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to make every state a socalled right-to-work state like West Vir­ginia, pub­lic employ­ees there have shown that a lack of for­mal recog­ni­tion doesn’t mean a lack of power. 

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH