On a cold, rainy Saturday, 10,000 teachers and school support employees rallied in Charleston, West Virginia to demand that state leaders take action to fix the state’s public education crisis.
At the end of the rally, the leaders of the two state public education unions announced that on Thursday, February 22, teachers and school support staff in all 55 West Virginia counties will begin a two-day, statewide strike.
“Will you stand with us?” he asked
Six days earlier, local leaders of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association from all 55 West Virginia counties voted to authorize a statewide strike unless state leaders took action to fix the state’s public education crisis
State budget cuts to education funding have resulted in crowded classrooms, fewer learning resources, and cuts to vital services at schools.
The state also has failed to provide adequate funding for affordable health care and competitive salaries for public school employees.
Low pay and the lack of affordable health care have caused a teacher shortage as many qualified educators have left the state for teaching opportunities elsewhere.
There are currently 727 vacant teaching positions in the state because of the low pay and a string of punishing benefit cuts.
After the strike vote, Christine Campbell, president of American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, and Lee, called the vote “historic” because it was the first time that the two organizations have joined in voting for a statewide strike.
Lee told reporters that more than 100 delegates from all of the state’s 55 counties “overwhelmingly voted to authorize a statewide action.”
Prior to the Sunday meeting, “quiet a few of the counties including some of our larger ones voted in excess of 90 percent to authorize our action,” added Lee.
“We’re willing to lead any action necessary to fight for public education,” said Campbell, speaking about the historic strike vote.
She went on to say that while state leaders have been short-changing public education, they continue “to give tax breaks to corporations.”
Both Campbell and Lee said that state leaders need to fund salary increases to make public school pay in West Virginia competitive with other states.
Too many of our qualified teachers are leaving the state for better jobs, said Campbell while she explained the strike vote to reporters on February 12.
State leaders also need to fund an affordable health care plane for public school employees.
During the last three years the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) has cut health care funding by $150 million because lawmakers have under funded public employees’ health care plan.
PEIA’s own executive director called the cuts “draconian.”
Because of the cuts, premiums, deductibles, co-payments, and co-insurance costs have soared.
While employee health care cost have increased, their pay has remained stagnant.
PEIA announced in December that for the next school year, which begins in July, it would be cutting benefits again because of a lack of state funding.
The latest round of cuts was too much for public school employees, and they expressed their anger at public hearings, by staging demonstrations, and in some cases, walking off the job to travel to Charleston to demand that the legislature take action to provide affordable health care.
The mobilizations had some effect. West Virginia’s Governor Jim Justice announced that he will propose a freeze on public school health care benefits at their current level, which if enacted would mean that there will be no benefit cuts during the 2018-2019 school year.
But angry teachers and school support employees have told Gov. Justice and the state’s lawmakers that “a freeze is not a fix” and that they want a long-term, lasting solution to make their health care affordable again.
Friday, the day before the two-day strike was announced, lawmakers got a hint of what was to come.
Teachers and school support employees from Brooke, Cabell, Clay, Lincoln, Mason, Wayne, and Wetzel counties walked off their jobs and drove to Charleston to demand action by lawmakers.
Some of those who walked out went to the Senate gallery to observe the debate on fixing the public school crisis.
At a little after 12 noon, as the Senate started to adjourn, the crowd in the gallery began chanting, “We will strike,” “Do your job,” “We will vote you out.”