West Virginia Teachers Walk Off The Job!

Raleigh County teachers and supporters picket at Shoemaker Square in Beckley during the first day of the statewide teachers’ walk-out
Raleigh County teachers and supporters picket at Shoemaker Square in Beckley during the first day of the statewide teachers’ walk-out

TEACHERS across West Virginia walked off the job last Thursday and Friday amid a dispute over pay and benefits, causing more than 277,000 public school students to miss classes as educators swarmed into the state Capitol in Charleston to protest. All 55 counties in the state closed schools during Thursday’s work stoppage, Alyssa Keedy, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Education, said.

Data from the National Education Association (NEA) show that in 2016, West Virginia ranked 48th in average teacher salaries. Only Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Dakota sat below it in the rankings, which included 50 states and the District.

Despite warnings that the walkout was illegal, thousands of NEA and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) teachers and support staff members converged at the Capitol in Charleston, seeking to pressure lawmakers who are still considering other proposals to help them financially.

More than 1,000 demonstrators were in line Thursday morning at the Capitol’s West Wing entrance, waiting to express their displeasure with state lawmakers. By 2.30pm, more than 4,500 people had entered the Capitol through the two public access points, according to the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

Kym Randolph, West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) director of communication. Lines said the crowd was mostly constituted of teachers, but included parents and students.

‘The place was packed,’ she said. ‘It was very loud. That is by far the largest crowd inside the Capitol in a long, long time.’ It was the teachers’ first statewide strike since 1990 in West Virginia, where teacher pay ranks 48th in the nation.

Chants of: ‘Do your job so I can do mine’ reverberated throughout the Capitol halls, along with other slogans including: ‘55 strong,’ a reference to the state’s 55 counties. On Wednesday night Governor Jim Justice signed a 2% raise next year for teachers, followed by 1% raises for the next two years.

But teachers said the increases were not enough. They also criticised projected increases in health insurance costs.

The average salary for teachers in West Virginia is $45,622 a year, well below the national average of $58,353. WVEA’s Randolph cited pay and benefits as two key items that are easy to understand, but said the strike was about more than that. She said: ‘This is a cumulative strike. ‘I mean, the pay and the benefits have been problems for years, and there’s constantly been the promises of, “We’ll take care of this, we’ll take care of this.” ‘It’s finally gotten to the point where, you know, the promises aren’t enough.’

When the teachers last struck statewide, in 1990, their pay ranked 49th in the nation.

AFT President Randi Weingarten said: ‘Every school district is on strike today. It’s been more than 20 years since this happened. They’re fighting for themselves, but also their students and anyone who believes in public education. Health insurance costs also remained a big sticking point.

The Public Employees Insurance Agency, a state entity that administers health care programmes for public workers, including teachers, has agreed to freeze health insurance premiums and rates for the next fiscal year for teachers and other workers. The House passed legislation to transfer $29 million from the rainy day fund to freeze the rates, a move that awaits State Senate action.

Public Employees Insurance Agency director Ted Cheatham has warned that $50 million to $70 million a year would be needed to keep the programme functioning as it currently does. After a 90-minute debate on Thursday, the House unanimously passed a bill to dedicate the first 20% of any general revenue surplus toward stabilising the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

Teachers, however, are worried that the solution being proposed is only temporary and may fall short of filling the gap. The walkout continued on Friday, with many saying they were willing to continue striking this week if necessary.

Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, said: ‘We are assessing the situation. ‘We are going to make a determination some time (Friday) on whether or not it’s necessary to take additional action and what that action might be.’ West Virginia’s teachers want to stay in the state, Campbell said: ‘They just want to make a living wage. ‘They just want to have a strong health care system and insurance. So, this is their opportunity to do that. To be heard.’

• The National Education Association (NEA) has rejected the US President’s call to arm teachers in the wake of the Florida shooting. In a listening session at the White House on Wednesday, Donald Trump proposed to arm teachers and school staff in an attempt to prevent mass shootings.

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García responded: ‘Bringing more guns into our schools does nothing to protect our students and educators from gun violence. ‘Our students need more books, art and music programmes, nurses and school counsellors; they do not need more guns in their classrooms.

‘Parents and educators overwhelmingly reject the idea of arming school staff. ‘Educators need to be focused on teaching our students.

‘We need solutions that will keep guns out of the hands of those who want to use them to massacre innocent children and educators. Arming teachers does nothing to prevent that. ‘We owe it to the students and school personnel, who’ve lost their lives at schools and on campuses across the country, to work together so that we can thoughtfully and carefully develop common sense solutions that really will save lives.’

The National Education Association represents 3 million educators who work in America’s public schools and on college campuses. AFT President Randi Weingarten tweeted: ‘I spoke to 60,000 educators last night in a telephone town hall. ‘The response was universal, even from educators who are gun owners: Teachers don’t want to be armed, we want to teach.’

In further tweets,she said: ‘And I’ll keep saying it every day – I am humbled by what the students from Stoneman Douglas are doing. Many have been doing this work for years, and these students are breaking through in a way we didn’t imagine. ‘And if places like Australia can figure out common sense gun laws, we can too. We need to take real action to keep weapons of war off our streets and out of our classrooms, and to ensure people who shouldn’t have guns don’t. ‘Instead of arming teachers with guns, arm schools with counsellors, social workers, nurses and wraparound services to help students before it goes too far.’