“A Living History Lesson”: Teachers Reflect on the Massive West Virginia Strike

Yawana Wolfe March 7, 2018

"That’s the only way forward for me, is to take from the rich and give to the poor and that’s what this is all about.” (Yawana Wolfe)

Charleston, W. Va. — The teach­ers’ strike in West Vir­ginia end­ed Tues­day after the Repub­li­can-con­trolled West Vir­ginia Sen­ate and House of Del­e­gates vot­ed to pass a 5 per­cent pay raise bill for pub­lic employ­ees that Repub­li­can Gov. Jim Jus­tice lat­er signed into law.

The strike, which began on Feb­ru­ary 22 and con­tin­ued for nine days across the state, left near­ly 277,000 chil­dren out of class­rooms with their par­ents scram­bling for babysit­ters. Mean­while, more than 20,000 red-shirt­ed teach­ers took to pick­et lines across all 55 coun­ties and cre­at­ed a mas­sive pres­ence in Charleston, the state capi­tol. Many teach­ers wore red ban­dan­nas in com­mem­o­ra­tion of the Bat­tle of Blair Moun­tain — the largest labor upris­ing in U.S. his­to­ry which took place in West Vir­ginia in 1921.

On Mon­day, the capi­tol was briefly shut down due to over­crowd­ing by strik­ing teach­ers and sup­port­ers. By 11 a.m., the capi­tol, which was built to accom­mo­date 3,700, had amassed over 5,000, with the line snaking into the build­ing stretch­ing for at least half a mile.

Teach­ers were on strike demand­ing a pay raise and a fix for the Pub­lic Employ­ees Insur­ance Agency (PEIA) which pro­vides health­care cov­er­age for state work­ers. Ris­ing pre­mi­ums and ben­e­fit cuts in recent years have led to frus­tra­tion for many pub­lic employ­ees, and West Vir­ginia teach­ers rank among the low­est paid in the nation.

Dur­ing the talks with Sen­ate lead­er­ship and Gov. Jus­tice, strik­ers ral­lied out­side the Sen­ate and House cham­bers chant­i­ng, 55 Unit­ed” and You work for us, we’ll work for you!”

After days of nego­ti­a­tions, with some strik­ers trav­el­ing hours to get to the capi­tol each day, many teach­ers were ecsta­t­ic when the vote of 34 – 0 in the Sen­ate was announced. Chants of 55 Unit­ed” gave way to hand hold­ing and the singing of John Denver’s Take Me Home Coun­try Roads.” Tears were shed and a feel­ing of pride and accom­plish­ment set­tled over the crowd.

Bran­don Tin­ney, a union leader with the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers said he was hap­py with the progress the strik­ers made. We have been 48th in pay for the past sev­er­al years so any raise in pay is help­ful,” he said. Five per­cent won’t get us where we need but it’s a great start this year so we’re look­ing at build­ing that mov­ing forward.”

Tin­ney also spoke about the nat­ur­al gas sev­er­ance tax bill that state Sen. Richard Oje­da (D) advo­cat­ed dur­ing the strike as a means of pro­vid­ing rev­enue for the state. We tax at a very low rate in West Vir­ginia so we just want that to be com­pet­i­tive so that our state will have mon­ey as well.” he said. We let coal leave this state for next to noth­ing for almost a hun­dred years and we don’t want to do that with oil and gas.”

Tin­ney, who was a teacher before becom­ing a union leader, said: When you become a teacher you want a cou­ple of things: ben­e­fits and respect. And our teach­ers in this state feel like they haven’t had respect for a while and now this cut in ben­e­fits was the last straw. So, if we get our ben­e­fits sowed up and get our respect back, we know that pay was always going to be low, but we need those two main things to be in this profession.”

Don Spence, the Min­go Coun­ty school super­in­ten­dent, said the pay raise is well deserved. For so long the teach­ers have came up here and not got any­thing. It’s time that [state leg­is­la­tors] put edu­ca­tion first and real­ize we have teacher short­ages in our coun­ties. We can’t fill math posi­tions and with the salary increase, we will become more com­pet­i­tive with the bor­der­ing states. That’s a big issue for my coun­ty. We’re a bor­der­ing coun­ty and you know, with all the events that have hap­pened this whole thing has tak­en on a life of its own. And every day the tar­get changes and the emo­tions change but in the end it was sim­ply about the deal. It was about what Gov. Jus­tice promised us and the peo­ple just bowed their back up and they were deter­mined that this is what it should be.

Today is the cul­mi­na­tion of a liv­ing his­to­ry les­son we are all in today. Years from now, peo­ple will still be talk­ing about this and so I’m excit­ed for the state employ­ees and for every­one that got a raise — the teach­ers and the state police. It’s a cel­e­bra­to­ry time and it’s nice to get back to normal.”

Spence also spoke about the lack of a clear cut solu­tion to fix PEIA. This is not just a mon­ey issue,” he said. You have to be able to pick the right ven­dor, you have to be able to fig­ure out how the mon­ey flows. There are a lot of sticky points with PEIA and to be hon­est with you, the notion that we just need it fixed, that doesn’t just hap­pen overnight. The gov­er­nor assigned a task force. It meets next week so I think that it’s in progress and I believe that some­thing real­ly good will come out of that, too.”

Kim Hund­ley, an Eng­lish and the­ater teacher at South Charleston High School in Kanawha Coun­ty, said she would like more infor­ma­tion about the PEIA task force. Some­one told me that a list was released but I haven’t seen who’s on it. It makes me uncom­fort­able because what if in 16 months the task force is like hey we didn’t come up with a solu­tion. Sor­ry guys?’”

Tish Mar­tin, an art teacher at Mil­ton Ele­men­tary school in Cabell Coun­ty said: They’re tripling our insur­ance. A lot of peo­ple don’t real­ize that in April and May they take insur­ance out of our checks to cov­er the sum­mer months. That would leave some of us with maybe two to three hun­dred dol­lars per month. It’s not about the mon­ey. This vic­to­ry of a 5 per­cent raise, I don’t care about that. I just want the insur­ance fixed.”

Tri­cia Mur­phy, a teacher at Sis­sonville High School in Kanawha Coun­ty, said the loss of her sis­ter to can­cer last year made this fight an emo­tion­al issue for her.

My sis­ter died a year ago and she was a super­vi­sor at the West Vir­ginia Depart­ment of Health and Human Resources and only earned $31,000 a year. And so the fight to include the pub­lic employ­ees was a very per­son­al thing for me, know­ing that she spent so much of her life at a job where she was get­ting so lit­tle. And she’s not the only one. There are many out there who are earn­ing way less than what she earned. It’s a prob­lem and I hope that this helps them.”

Dur­ing Tuesday’s press con­fer­ence where Gov. Jus­tice signed the pay raise bill, John Ryman, a for­mer union mem­ber from Oak­land, Calif. who came to West Vir­ginia to show his sup­port for the strik­ing pub­lic employ­ees, stood up and told Gov. Jus­tice that: We’ve had 25 years of tak­ing from the poor and the work­ing class peo­ple and giv­ing to the rich. To me, that’s what this strike is all about. Yes, it’s about edu­ca­tion, but it’s also about revers­ing that and tak­ing from the rich to give to us, the poor. That’s the only way for­ward for me, is to take from the rich and give to the poor and that’s what this is all about.”

Kim Swindell, a teacher at Poca Mid­dle School in Put­nam Coun­ty said: We’ve been here for nine days but long before that it start­ed to kind of rum­ble. We are very hope­ful and I think that we made our voic­es heard and the leg­is­la­tors and the sen­a­tors heard what we have to say. I don’t think they took us very seri­ous­ly in the begin­ning, but we’ve lit­er­al­ly been going to their offices three to four times in a week’s time to tell them how we feel. I think they final­ly real­ized that we tru­ly are not back­ing down.”

Yawana Wolfe is a legal jour­nal­ist who has pub­lished over sev­en­ty arti­cles for Cour­t­house News Ser­vice. A for­mer mil­i­tary jour­nal­ist, she now resides in her home state of West Vir­ginia with her part­ner and their sev­en children.
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