Thousands of West Virginia teachers on indefinite strike

Striking teachers show their concern over the high rates they will have to pay to cover their health insurance
Striking teachers show their concern over the high rates they will have to pay to cover their health insurance

THOUSANDS of public school teachers across West Virginia have been on strike for more than a week in protest over their pay and benefits. And despite striking a deal with West Virginia Governor Jim Justice last Wednesday that would put the more than 277,000 students affected back in school, teachers still haven’t returned to work as the state’s legislature – specifically, the Senate – has rejected the agreement.

The strike began on Thursday, February 22, the day after Governor Justice, a Republican, signed legislation providing teachers, school service personnel, and state police with a 2 per cent salary increase starting in July and scheduling a 1 per cent pay hike for teachers in 2020 and 2021.

Teachers’ unions said the raises wouldn’t cover cost-of-living increases, and the bill didn’t address other concerns related to public employee insurance programmes, health care costs, and payroll tax deduction options. The strike extended into last week, with thousands of teachers, parents, and supporters descending on West Virginia’s Capitol in Charleston to protest.

The strike appeared as though it was poised to end on Wednesday, after Justice announced that teachers and other education-related employees would be getting a 5 per cent pay raise in the first year – provided state lawmakers approve the new bill. The proposed pay hike passed West Virginia’s House of Delegates, but the Senate has resisted. It approved a bill on Saturday evening for a 4 per cent pay rise, and that was rejected by the House of Delegates.

‘This is a three-legged stool, right?’ Kym Randolph, director of communications for the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), a teacher union, told the media. ‘The governor, the House, and the Senate. And I think two legs are very solid. I think one is a little wobbly right now, and some statements have been made by members of the Senate that are causing some people to question whether or not the Senate is fully committed.’

In a statement on Friday, West Virginia teachers unions said that their members are ‘ready to get back to work’ but said there is one thing standing in their way: Senate President Mitch Carmichael.

‘Senator Carmichael has made every effort to derail the agreement with the Governor and keep our public schools closed again next week,’ the unions said in a statement. ‘His rhetoric, posturing, and actions has inflamed educators, state superintendents, parents, citizens as well as his fellow legislators.’ It’s actually illegal for teachers to strike in West Virginia. They’re doing it anyway.

West Virginia’s 680 public schools employ 19,488 classroom teachers and have enrolled 277,137 students.

All 55 counties in West Virginia have closed schools for more than a week. In 2016, the average salary for West Virginia teachers ranked 48th in the country, according to the National Education Association, ahead of only Oklahoma, Mississippi, and South Dakota. In a moment in which public unions are under an increasingly heavy threat, West Virginia teachers have shown why they matter and what they can do.

The Supreme Court this week heard arguments in a case, Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, on whether employees can be required to pay dues to a union they don’t belong to. Katie Endicott, 31, a high school English teacher from Gilbert, W.Va., stated why she and many other teachers are not yet prepared to return to school. The interview has been edited and condensed.

‘They told us that essentially if you weren’t a single person, if you had a family plan, your health insurance was going to rise substantially. ‘As a West Virginia teacher – and I’ve been teaching 10 years – I only clear right under $1,300 every two weeks, and they’re wanting to take $300 more away for me. But they tell me it’s O.K., because we’re going to give you a 1 per cent pay raise. That equals out to 88 cents every two days.

‘They implemented Go365, which is an app that I’m supposed to download on my phone, to track my steps, to earn points through this app. If I don’t earn enough points, and if I choose not to use the app, then I’m penalised $500 at the end of the year. People felt that was very invasive, to have to download that app and to be forced into turning over sensitive information.

‘Go365 was thrown out. Of course they decided to give a freeze (on insurance rates), and I think people thought that might be enough. But we understand that this is an election year. They can freeze it right now, but what happens after the election? The feeling is, we have to get this fixed, and we have to get it fixed now.’ ‘I take care of the bills in my family and knew I can’t afford it, I can’t. I have two children, I live paycheck to paycheck. When I realised that they were taking hundreds of dollars and then they tried to tell me they were giving me a pay raise of 1 per cent, I knew I can’t just sit back. I can’t be complacent, something has to change.

‘We went to the Capitol on Feb. 2, we stood in solidarity, and they would not talk to us.

‘When we walked out of there, my husband looked at me and he said, “I feel so defeated.” They didn’t listen to anything that we had to say. ‘We were just walking silently from the Capitol and one teacher said, “Guys, we’re really going to have to strike.” At that point, I knew.’

‘I teach seniors and 10th graders, my kids are aware of everything that’s going on. I’m the pep club leader at my school, the prayer club leader, on the prom committee. ‘My first period senior class, I started crying and I said, “Guys, I legitimately don’t know when I will be back.” I have an A.P. exam on May 9, and that is not going to change.

‘We have been having local rallies as well as going to the Capitol. Our son is a little confused because we’ve been wearing bunny ears because the governor called us dumb bunnies.

‘He’s been telling everyone that if his mommy and daddy are dumb bunnies he’s a dumb bunny, too. He insists on wearing bunny ears in public like we’ve been doing at the protests.’

‘Initially a lot of people around me were very happy, because we thought we won. I was excited. And then the union leaders came out and talked to us and we realised really quickly we did not win anything. ‘The crowd turned very angry very quickly. Just because the governor suggests a 5 per cent pay raise doesn’t mean it’s going through.

‘Now they’re saying you get 5 per cent and well P.E.I.A. the public insurance offered to teachers and state employees is still frozen. At that point the crowd starts chanting, “A freeze is not a fix.”

‘Everybody was very angry, very angry that we were told to go back to the classroom when we felt like had not achieved what we set out to achieve. ‘Our county said we would not be returning to the classroom. We did not want to go back with a promise. We wanted it signed, sealed and delivered. We wanted it to be fulfilled, not just empty words. We knew that if we went back and there were not details of a plan and a true commitment, then we could easily lose everything.

‘They are telling us that P.E.I.A. cannot be fixed overnight. While we understand that, simply saying there will be a task force is not enough. We need to know who is going to be on this task force. We need specific details about how this is going to be fixed. ‘The governor mentioned, I think, three different sources of possible revenue to fix it. Which one? How much? We feel like the plan is too ambiguous right now. We need to know.

We know that we come from these mountains and we are strong and we have pride and we love this state. We come from an area that is known for standing up for what they believe in. The union wars, they originated in the south in Mingo County. ‘We believe we’re following in their footsteps. We believe the movement was started years ago through the mine wars. We’re just reviving the movement that was started years ago.’