West Virginia teachers on strike

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.”

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Nurses, teachers challenge GOP Rep. on health care

Nurses and teachers in Corpus Christi, Texas on July 30 challenged US Representative Blake Farenthold to step outside of his local office and defend his vote to deny health care coverage to millions of Americans.

They also chastised Rep. Farenthold for his implied threat of violence against women senators–Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Shelly Moore Capito–for voting against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

After the US Senate rejected two Republican bills to dismantle Obamacare, Rep. Farenthold singled out the three Republican women among seven Republican senators who voted against one of the two bills.

He said that he would like to settle the score with them “Aaron Burr style,” referencing the 1804 duel between then Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in which Burr killed Hamilton.

Rep. Farenthold voted to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a Republican health care plan that the Congressional Budget Office said would cause 23 million people to lose their health care coverage.

With temperatures reaching 97 degrees on a hot summer afternoon, members of National Nurses United/National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNU/NNOC) and the Corpus Christi American Federation of Teachers rallied outside of Rep. Farenthold’s Corpus Christi office to challenge him on his implied threat and his vote to reduce health care coverage.

Sylvia Higgins, a nurse and a member of NNU/NNOC, challenged him with facts about the impact that his vote for the Republican bill would have had on Texans and demanded that he support a common sense approach to providing health coverage for everyone.

“Currently, 4.3 million Texans are uninsured, and an additional 2.5 million Texans would have lost coverage under the dangerous GOP bill (to repeal Obamacare),” said Higgins. “Now that the GOP bill is effectively dead, any politician who truly represents the people would internalize the real facts about health care and begin advocating for a single-payer-for-all healthcare system—because that’s what our patients deserve.”

Others like a teacher who carried a sign that simply read, “Shame on you Farenthold,” challenged Rep. Farenthold’s character.

Apparently, Rep. Farenthold wasn’t up to the nurses’ and teachers’ challenge.

He said he couldn’t meet with them because he had to be in Moulton, a small town about 140 miles north of Corpus Christi.

Farenthold said that repealing Obamacare care remained one of his top priorities because “Obamacare is hurting the American people, especially those it was intended to help.”

Rep Farenthold is right. People are hurting, especially in Texas, but it’s not because of Obamacare; rather, it’s because of Republican antipathy toward Obamacare.

Texas, which is governed by Republicans, chose not to participate in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and actively disrupted efforts by non-profit groups to help people get health insurance through the federal health insurance exchanges.

As a result, 20 percent of adult Texans still lack health insurance.

Republican health care policy has hurt Texans in other ways as well.

Republican state officials have cut off government funding to Planned Parenthood and enacted laws that resulted in the closure of 31 Planned Parenthood affiliated clinics, most of which were in medically under served areas.

In addition to providing birth control and abortion services, these clinics provided basic health screenings for low-income women.

According to a recent study, among women with a high school education or less who once received examinations for breast cancer at Planned Parenthood clinics, 31 percent fewer are still getting examined.

There’s another health care crisis going on in Texas that is just now starting to get some attention.

The rate of pregnancy related deaths of women in Texas is 35.8 per 100,000. The national average excluding California is 23.8 per 100,000.

Texas leaders have appointed a task force to learn the cause and recommend a remedy for the state’s alarmingly high rate of pregnancy related deaths.

To the chagrin of Texas’ leaders, California may have already answered these questions. California’s pregnancy related death rate is 7.3 per 100,000.

California’s success at reducing pregnancy related deaths is the result of a collective public health initiative funded by the state and federal government and the California Healthcare Foundation.

It should also be noted that only 8 percent of Californians lack health insurance, which makes health care much more accessible in California.

It is unquestionable that Obamacare is a much better approach to health care than the Republican approach, but Obamacare is not without its shortcomings.

The main problem is that 29 million Americans still don’t have health insurance, which is why when people demonstrated in front of Rep. Farenthold’s office, they advocated for a single-payer health care plan that would make health insurance available to everyone.

“We need single payer/Medicare for All, and we need Rep. Farenthold to advocate for it,” said Cynthia Martinez, a nurse and NNU/NNOC member.

Teacher sickout ends; Detroit schools still facing tough times

After hearing that most Detroit teachers might not get paid for work they performed, members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) on May 2 and May 3 staged a two-day sick-out.

The teachers refused to go to work until they received a guarantee from the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) governor-appointed emergency manager that they would be paid in full.

After initially refusing to provide such a guarantee, Judge Steve Rhodes, DPS’ emergency manager, in a May 3 letter to the union wrote, “DPS recognizes the contractual obligation to pay teachers what they have earned and we assure all teachers that we will honor that legal obligation. This same assurance applies to all similarly situated employees of DPS.”

That appeared to satisfy the union’s demand for a guarantee, and the union’s leadership urged its members to return to class on May 4.

While the teachers were conducting their sickout, The Michigan House Appropriations Committee passed a bill authorizing $548 million to fund Detroit schools.

The bill, which had been stalled in committee, appropriates less than the $715 million that the state senate had approved in a similar appropriations bill. The two bills will have to be reconciled before the legislature can pass and send the reconciled bill to the governor for his approval.

The fact that the appropriation bill had been stalled in committee set in motion events that led to the sickout.

When it looked like no action would be taken on the bill, Judge Rhodes let it be known that without funding from the legislature, teacher pay would be in jeopardy.

The school district, according to Judge Rhodes, was running out of money, and if the House failed to pass the appropriations bill, there would not be enough money to pay teachers during the months of July and August.

About two-thirds of DPS teachers had elected to stretch their nine months worth of pay over a 12 month period, so that they would continue to receive a paycheck during the time school was out.

If no paychecks were issued in July or August, teachers who elected the 12-month pay plan would have been shorted two months worth of pay.

The union told DPS’ administrators that if they could not guarantee paychecks for July and August, union members were not about to work for free.

While legislative inaction may have precipitated the events that led up to the sickout, it is only one in a series of missteps that has put Detroit schools in a permanent state of crisis.

Like the city of Detroit, DPS’ problems can be traced back to problems in the US auto industry.

In the early aughts, Detroit was hit hard when US auto makers stumbled on tough times. Companies that supplied parts to the Big Three auto makers went out of business or moved production overseas reducing the property tax base that supported public schools.

Layoffs at auto and auto parts plants hit the working class hard, which further reduced revenue available to the public schools.

In 2009, the State of Michigan took control of Detroit’s schools, supposedly to put the school district’s financial house in order.

But things only got worse. Even though the state was now in control of Detroit’s schools, the state legislature failed to adequately fund the schools.

The lack of adequate state funding coupled with a decline in local tax revenue left DPS in even worse financial shape.

A succession of emergency managers appointed by Michigan governors tried to keep the schools open by borrowing heavily.

According to the Detroit Free Press, at the end of the school year, the school district’s debt will be $320 million, which doesn’t include $5 billion in long-term debt owed by DPS.

While state leaders were failing to fund Detroit’s schools, they were also pushing to expand charter schools in Detroit, a project that DPS’s emergency managers embraced.

As a result about half of Detroit’s school children now attend privately operated charter schools, which drain resources away from public schools.

The results have been devastating. Without adequate funding, DPS has been unable to properly maintain and repair its schools.

As a result, many students go to dilapidated schools that are poorly maintained.

The situation became so dire, that teachers held sick-ins in January to protest the filth and squalor of the buildings where they taught and where children were supposed to learn.

The lack of funding has also caused class sizes to increase well beyond a reasonable size for good learning opportunities.

The New York Times reports that “the planned class size in Grades 6 to 12 (for Detroit schools) is 38 students.”

Whatever amount that the legislature appropriates, it will not be enough to turn around Detroit’s schools because much of the money will go toward paying off creditors.

When school starts again in the fall, Detroit’s teachers, its students, and their parents will be the one’s left to deal with the residue of past decisions that crippled public education in the city.