2nd Update March 1st: Reports from West Virginia indicate that the strike continues, despite announcements that it would end Thursday. USA Today reoports that,
"Concerns were heightened when Senate President Mitch Carmichael questioned Gov. Justice's decision to increase the state's revenue estimate to squeeze the pay hikes into the budget.
A Senate committee will take up the pay raise plan later Thursday, and a vote could come Thursday night. Kevin Green, who teaches Social Studies at River View High School in Bradshaw, said he believes teachers will return to work if the Senate approves the measure.
"We have been promised so many things for so long and none of it comes to fruition," Green said. "We want to see a firm commitment before we go back.""
A "must read" from The Atlantic dives into the broader issues that are leaving teachers dissatisfied with the current proposal from Governor Justice,
"Teachers in West Virginia stressed to me on Tuesday that the salary issue pales in comparison to the key problem that prompted the walk-out: the rising costs associated with the state’s health-insurance system, the Public Employees Insurance Agency, typically referred to by its acronym PEIA. “[People] see us out here and think it’s money—they think it’s only about the pay raise. It is so not about the pay raise,” Annette Jordan, a teacher at Hedgesville High in Berkeley County, told me as she picketed in front of the school’s campus along Route 9. Holding a sign that read, “I’d take a bullet for YOUR child but PEIA WON’T cover it,” she explained that because of structural changes to the health-insurance system, her family’s monthly premiums would more than double starting July 1. An agreement hasn’t yet been reached on PEIA; Justice said on Tuesday that he’s going to appoint a task force to “try to look for solutions and a permanent fix” for the health-insurance system."
"With a proposal for an even higher pay raise next school year, this year’s statewide public school employees strike — the second teacher strike in West Virginia history and the first to also include school service personnel — is planned to end, at least for now."
Last Thursday, February 22nd West Virginia teachers began a strike.
Teachers began rallying at the Capitol a day after Republican West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed a 2 percent pay increase for teachers for the next fiscal year and a 1 percent pay increase for the two subsequent fiscal years. The strike is, therefore, a response to meager pay increases that would do little to offset rising health care costs and a whittling of benefits.
"Today’s action is the first statewide walkout of teachers in almost thirty years. “If you look at what teachers and their allies are posting on social media, you can see that they are connecting the upcoming action to the state’s important history of labor uprising, from Blair Mountain to Widen.” Elizabeth Catte told me via email. She pointed to a tweet from Richard Ojeda, a candidate for Congress from the state, who posted a photograph of himself in a red bandanna with the caption, “The term redneck started when WV coal miners tied red bandanas around their necks during the bloody battle of Blair mountain to unionize. Today, our teachers channeled their history. #UnionStrong”"
For context, West Virginia teacher pay ranks 48th in the United States. The average starting salary for a West Virginia public school teacher is $32,435, and the average salary is $44,701, according to the West Virginia Education Association
Writing in Jacobin,
Cathy Kunkel explains some other motivations for the strike,
"The conditions for the strike go beyond school employees’ direct financial circumstances. “We’re feeling a cumulative effect of West Virginia’s bad economy. All the economic desperation in the state, the opioid crisis — kids bring that with them into the classroom,” said a South Charleston high school teacher. “There’s a feeling that the whole state is ready for a strike.”
And though most media attention has focused on teachers, the strike’s appeal is more widespread. With one in seven West Virginians on PEIA, everyone knows someone with a stake in fixing the state’s public employee health insurance plan."
Students are organizing their own actions
The strike has even garnered the attention of celebrities like Reese Witherspoon.
West Virginia state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has declared the work stoppage illegal.
In West Virginia, public employees have limited bargaining rights. In 1974 the state Attorney General concluded
that in West Virginia collective bargaining is legal but restricted.
"County boards of education legally may 'negotiate' with representatives of county school board employees regarding any pertinent issue affecting county school board employees regarding... any and all related or similar matters pertaining to their employment which are not totally and strictly governed by State law."
Wage negotiation is illegal.
"County boards of education legally may 'negotiate' with representatives of county school board employees regarding any pertinent issue affecting county school board employees, including, but not limited to, wages, hours of employment, working conditions, fringe benefits, transfers, assignments, and any and all related or similar matters pertaining to their employment which are not totally and strictly governed by State law."
The current strike harkens back to the last teacher strike in 1990.
It was the first statewide teachers strike in state history and lasted 11 days.
While the strike was successful in improving wages and working conditions for West Virginia teachers it also resulted in litigation on the legality of strikes. The 1990 West Virginia Supreme Court case Jefferson Cty. Bd. of Educ. v. Educ. Ass'n
“Public employees have no right to strike in the absence of express legislation or, at the very least, appropriate statutory provisions for collective bargaining, mediation, and arbitration. In view of our legislature's silence on these complex issues, we decline to intervene.”
What is already a hostile environment for public sector workers in West Virginia was made worse in 2016. The West Virginia legislature passed their own version of “right to work” legislation in early 2016. They became the 26th state to do so. In September 2017 the state supreme court reversed a low court injunction on the law.
Some of the same organizations that are bringing the Janus v. AFSCME case to the Supreme Court have focused on West Virginia.
"in an April 2016 fundraising letter obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy and published in the Guardian, the billionaire-funded State Policy Network (SPN) CEO Tracie Sharpe explains his plan to readers:
I am writing you today to share with you our bold plans to permanently break the power of unions this year. ... I am talking about the kind of dramatic reforms we’ve seen in recent years in Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and now West Virginia—freeing teachers and other government workers from coercive unionism—and spreading them across the nation. … I’m talking about permanently depriving the Left from access to millions of dollars in dues extracted from unwilling union members every election cycle."
The West Virginia teachers response to economic decline and attacks by well-funded groups stands as a lesson for organized labor as it battles billionaires
at the Supreme Court.
Claire Thiele a Minnesota based Teamster Organizer explains,
"As many people hopefully know, Janus v AFSCME was argued before the Supreme Court yesterday. The case is designed to cripple public sector unions by eliminating agency fees and imposing an open shop.
Meanwhile in West Virginia, a state people would make fun of for being red neck and backwater if they even remembered it exists, teachers have shut down every single county’s schools for another day of strike action. WV has been open shop, and the teachers are striking illegally. The laws have been set against labor, even in states with a closed shop and legal striking rights. And yet these educators continue to organize against unfair pay and cuts to benefits.
Janus will not be a death knell for labor. As long as working people struggle to improve their conditions, as long as people are exploited for profit, the struggle will continue. The more laws and precedents are established as barriers to that, the more people will organize outside the restrictions set by wealthy elites. While I’m not thrilled to see the Court’s decision, this is only the beginning."