"WV has fundamental problems of poverty and depression that go well beyond public employees: Schools provide the only decent meals that many children ever get, and striking teachers and community groups have stepped up to feed kids through the work stoppage.”
Paul Nelson, WV teacherWest Virginia has a long history of class and labor action. The state was born during the Civil War when secessionists decided they owed no allegiance to wealthy Virginia planters and joined the Union. A half century later, as the inequalities of a newly industrialized United States came to a head in the early 1920s, striking southern WV coal miners entered a state of warfare against not just mine owners, but against the full force of the U.S. Army. Today, as WV rests firmly near the bottom of the U.S. by most economic indicators, tensions have reached a boiling point once more among an unlikely demographic– teachers and other public education employees.On Thursday, February 22, after numerous failed compromises, protests, and politicians’ gaffs circulated around social media, WV’s two teachers’ unions, the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) and the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) began a statewide work stoppage for all school employees.Workers have twin complaints: low pay and rising insurance costs.
Second-worst teacher pay in the USTeacher pay in WV is the 48th lowest in the nation. Although this dismal number is slightly offset by the state’s lower-than-average cost of living, many teachers are nonetheless just scraping by, dealing with student loan payments that are in line with the national average, and working second and third jobs to supplement their income. Most media sources cite the “average” WV teacher’s salary as $45,000, but this figure is a median based on the state pay scale, not an actual mathematical mean.Given the fact that the state has a high rate of teachers leaving the field, resulting in higher numbers of lower-paid new hires, and also has over 700 job vacancies that are being filled by lower-paid long-term substitutes (full disclosure: I’m not a fully certified teacher), the true average salary is likely much lower. Many teachers with whom I work are making somewhere in the $30,000 range. Teachers living within an hour of Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Virginia can get jobs across state lines that pay up to $20,000 more a year. The unspoken social contract for public employees in WV has long been something like this: “you’ll work for a bit less than you’d make in the private sector, but we’ll make up for this with generous benefits like pensions, job security, and great health insurance.” Unfortunately, this has changed, and the state’s Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) has struggled with budget cuts. In the last year, PEIA has been trying to deal with these cuts in a variety of ways– forced compliance with health incentive programs, raising premiums, and even factoring in spousal income to determine premium rates.
A freeze is not a fixBefore the strike, massive outcry by public employees prompted some positive change with PEIA–Governor Jim Justice signed a bill that would freeze PEIA rates for one year. But strikers are cynical– no long term budget solution has been presented, and the one-year freeze seems to be a shoddy patch-over intended to get legislators just past the 2018 election. Right now, one of the most popular chants among protesters is “A freeze is not a fix!”In terms of salary, even less progress has been accomplished. Before the strike, the state senate discussed bills that, in various forms, amounted to 5% pay raises over the next five years. Unions saw these as insufficient, and mathematically they won’t even keep up with rising insurance costs. Then, in an apparent slap in the face to threatening strikers, the day before the strike was announced a law was passed raising salaries 2% the first year, followed by two 1% annual increases. The insufficient 5% increase was taken down to 4%.
The local is nationalIt’s hard to separate this struggle from national politics and the new plutocracy of the 21st century. Our governor is the richest man in the state, allegedly owes WV $4 million in back taxes, ran as a conservative democrat in 2016, and upon victory switched parties. When asked if he might reverse a 40% tax reduction on coal and gas companies to free up more revenue, he replied “not a Chinaman’s chance.” West Virginia has long been a sort of “internal colony” in which extractive industries seek mineral wealth, with minimal investment in long term economic health for residents. West Virginians tend to band together in times of crisis, as we did during the deadly floods of summer, 2016. It has been inspiring to see thousands of us, conservatives and progressives, young and old, join during this strike. It’s more than teachers and other school personnel, too: United Mine Workers members are also joining the protests. As I stood with 7,000 protesters in the halls of the capitol, we would boo or cheer each time a black suit would emerge from the senate. Senate president Mitch Carmichael, a republican who prematurely adjourned a session last week after the gallery was flooded with teachers, emerged to a chant of “Move Mitch, get out ‘da way!” (A shout-out to rapper Ludacris.)
A return to pro-labor roots?Some analysts are predicting a progressive wave in West Virginia this November, as the quintessential Trump Country returns to its populist, pro-labor roots. Probably the most popular senator right now is a fiery Iraq-Afghanistan veteran and former teacher named Richard Ojeda. Heralding from the southern coalfields, this crew-cut iconoclast publishes facetime videos in which he pushes populist agendas that carry an air of New Deal liberalism. He plans to challenge establishment republican Evan Jenkins for a U.S. Congress seat this year. We don’t know how this is going to turn out. WV has fundamental problems of poverty and depression that go well beyond public employees. Coal mining will never support our economy the way it once did. One valid criticism of this strike was that schools provide the only decent meals that many children ever get, and striking teachers and community groups have stepped up to feed kids through the work stoppage. The last teachers’ strike, which took place in 1990 and resulted in a pay raise of $5,000, lasted for ten days. Hopefully something will be accomplished in less time than that.
More strike coverage:
- Dissent: WV Walk Out
- Labor Notes: WV Teachers Launch Statewide Strike
- In These Times: WV Teachers Are Showing How To Win Power Even If They Lose Janus
- WJLA: Empty Classrooms Won't Mean Hungry Students