Fed up and feeling disrespected, West Virginia teachers and school support employees today began their statewide strike to save public education.
The strikers set up picket lines at their schools, held rallies and demonstrations in their communities, and some traveled to Charleston, the state capital, to demand action by lawmakers.
Even though West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey declared the strike illegal, leaders of the two state public education unions, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia (AFT-WV) and the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), said that schools in all 55 counties of the state were closed.
The strike was caused by years of neglect by state leaders.
A series of budget cuts have resulted in crowded classrooms, cuts in vital school services, and a severe teacher shortage as qualified teachers leave the state to take jobs in nearby states that pay better and have better benefits.
Rebecca Diamond, a second grade teacher in Huntington, and Jacob Fertig, an art teacher in Kanahwa County, explained why they are willing to defy state leaders and go on strike.
“I have a daughter,” Diamond said. “I will go on strike, so that she will have a highly qualified teacher in every single classroom that she goes into.”
Diamond said that her current salary isn’t enough to pay her family’s bills, so she has taken a second weekend job where she sometimes works ten-hour shifts on both days.
Instead of working at my second job on the weekends, Diamond said. “I’d like to be preparing for what I’m going to the next week at school.”
Fertig, whose wife has a chronic illness and whose daughter has a physical disability, said that he needs a quality, affordable health care plan, but that West Virginia does not provide one to teachers, school support employees, and other public employees.
“The lack of quality health insurance that we have here for teachers in West Virginia bankrupted my family,” Fertig said.
“We qualified for food stamps and WIC (a federal nutrition program for women, infants, and children),” Fertig continued.
According to Fertig the original teacher pay raise offered by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice would have raised Fertig’s pay by about $375 a year. In the same year, his health care premium was scheduled to increase by about $1100 a year.
By 10:00 A.M. this morning a long line of hundreds of teachers formed outside of the West Virginia Capitol as striking teachers and other public school employees waited for the building to open.
When it did, the first floor of the building was covered with a flood of people wearing red and demanding that lawmakers take real action to solve the state’s public education crisis.
The strike has already had an impact.
The day before the strike began, the Finance Board of the state’s Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA), which manages health insurance plans for teachers and other public employees, approved a freeze on health care benefits for the next school year.
The freeze halts the $29 million worth of health care cuts for next year authorized by PEIA in December.
Union leaders said that the freeze is a step in the right direction, but PEIA, the Legislature, and governor need to do more.
“We still believe a freeze is not a fix,” said Christine Campbell, president of AFT-WV, about the agency’s decision to freeze benefits.
Campbell and Dale Lee, president of WVEA, both said that there needs to be a long-term, permanent solution to the funding problems that have caused PEIA to radically cut health care benefits over the last four years.
On the eve of the strike, the Legislature passed a pay raise bill for teachers and school support staff.
The raise increases pay by 2 percent next year, and 1 one percent the following two years.
When asked by reporters if she was satisfied with the pay raise, Campbell said that she wasn’t.
“This isn’t something that will actually pull us out of 48th in the country,” Campbell said.
Campbell was referring to the fact that teacher pay in West Virginia ranks 48th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
In addition to wanting the Legislature to do more to improve pay and health care benefits, Campbell also said urged union members to keep up pressure on the Legislature to thwart anti-public education bills pending before the body.
Among those bad bills are SB 335, which would prohibit the withholding of union dues from union members’ paychecks, SB 6, which would provide vouchers for parents wanting to send their children to private schools, and several bills that attack seniority rights for teachers.
The statewide strike has made state officials nervous. Attorney General Morrisey hoped that he could dissuade union members from going on strike by announcing that the work action is illegal.
He also said that if any local governments requested him to do so, he would file an injunction to halt the strike.
So far, no one has taken him up on his offer.
After the attorney general issued his threats, Lee said that the fact that the strike is illegal would not keep teachers and school support employees from striking.
“Education employees know they do not have the right to strike and they know there could be consequences to their actions,” Lee said. “But their frustration and anger has reached a boiling point and the Legislature continues to move punitive bills and fuel their anger. They are courageous and standing up for themselves, our schools and our students. They should be applauded instead of threatened.”