West Virginia Teachers Tell Us Why Public Schools And Unions Matter

Teachers, service personnel and supporters celebrate in front of the Senate Chambers at the State Capitol after the 5% pay raise was excepted during Day 9 of the walkout. (Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald)

West Virginia Teachers Tell Us Why Public Schools And Unions Matter

The West Virginia teachers’ strike is not only a startling victory for labor rights; it’s also a reminder of the important role public schools and public school educators can and should play in progressive populism.

Striking public school educators in West Virginia overcame all odds in getting lawmakers to agree to a five-percent pay raise and a realistic commitment from the state to address a broken public employee health insurance program.

Equally remarkable is how the West Virginia strike is already inspiring similar actions in other states. Teachers in Oklahoma recently set a strike date of April 23 if their demands for pay increases aren't met by the state legislature. Kentucky could be next, as teachers warn of a statewide strike to protest changes to their retirement benefits. And Arizona teachers are organizing a "day of protest" to express their grievances over lousy teacher pay.

But the West Virginia teachers' strike is not only a startling victory for labor rights; it's also a reminder of the important role public schools and public school educators can and should play in progressive populism.

Left Behind

For years, prominent progressive voices have been weak in their support for school teachers and public schools. But the West Virginia teachers may have started to change that; at least progressive activists in the Mountain State seem to think so.

"The teacher power on display in West Virginia aligns with the other progressive movements that are speaking truth to power," Gary Zuckett, the Executive Director of West Virginia Citizen Action Group, told me in an email. "Everyone, from the across the justice movements - environmental, social, economic, racial, and gender - were totally inspired by the throw down of the teachers and the way they stood their ground without backing down."

"Through the strike, West Virginians learned the power of their voice and ability to move policy," said Ryan Frankenberry, Executive Director of the West Virginia Working Families Party, in an email. "Now, we're going to harness that energy and turn it into progressive wins at the state and federal level in this year's elections."

Odds Against Them

Make no mistake, the statewide walkout that shut down schools in West Virginia for nine days was a brazen act of mass civil disobedience.

West Virginia prohibits collective bargaining, and all teacher contracts are controlled by the state. So getting an agreement from Republican Governor Jim Justice and the GOP-controlled legislature seemed like a longshot at best.

At one point, state officials threatened to take legal action against the teachers, but teachers didn't back down.

When union leadership accepted the governor's preliminary proposal, they told teachers to report back to work. Rank and file teachers went wildcat, and refused to cooperate, noting the state legislature had yet to vote on the raise and the settlement did not include a fix to the health insurance program.

Yet, the solidarity of nearly 20,000 teachers and about 13,000 school service personnel in all 55 counties remained solid. County school boards and district superintendents unified behind the teachers. And parents and students expressed widespread support for the strike, with many of them joining in the raucous demonstrations at the capitol. When a group of students formed a solidarity group to support teachers, their effort quickly spread to at least 12 other counties.

Not a Typical Union Strike

"This was way beyond a typical union strike," retired West Virginia school teacher Paul Epstein told me in a phone call. Epstein was a third-year public school teacher in West Virginia in 1990, the last time the state's teachers went on strike.

In that strike, according to Epstein, not all teachers walked out, and not every school closed. Many parents chose to cross picket lines to take their kids to schools.

What's different now?

Teachers' lives in West Virginia and nationwide have gotten considerably worse.

When teachers won a pay increase as a result of their 1990 action, Epstein recalled, it added $5,000 over the next five years and lifted his meager salary of about $16,000 by nearly thirty percent.

Things are much worse now, he noted, as West Virginia teachers are near bottom of the barrel in teacher pay, ranking 48th compared to other states and the District of Columbia - with a minimum salary of only $32,000. Teachers haven't had a statewide pay increase since 2014.

Further, spiking costs of premiums in the state-supported public employee health insurance program have made small increases in salaries almost irrelevant.

West Virginians know the dismal condition of their state's teacher pay. A recent survey found over 70 percent of them think teacher pay is too low.

West Virginia teachers aren't alone. Their peers in the U.S. are paid 17 percent less than similarly educated professionals. Their average weekly wages have declined by $1,122 to $1,092 in the past 20 years, while weekly wages of all college graduates rose from $1,292 to $1,416.

A second factor to note, according to Epstein, is the impact of President Donald Trump's ascendency, especially on women. About 75 percent of West Virginia teachers are women, which closely matches national percentages.

Anecdotally, the Women's March and the #MeToo movement would seem to indicate that public school teachers may becoming a fertile ground for populist dissent. Empirical analysis would support that conclusion too. Recent polls show that college educated women nationally are increasingly turning against Republicans and the Trump administration, especially in financially downtrodden states like West Virginia.

The Importance of Unions and Schools

Without a doubt, union organizing was instrumental in generating the West Virginia teachers' successful action. But the strike may illustrate the changing nature of union power in the progressive movement.

Some have pointed to the strike as the future of labor organizing, because the teachers transcended the constraints of right to work laws and political party lines.

Many argue an imminent Supreme Court decision that could marginalize unions of their ability to collect dues through employee paychecks will result in more wildcat strikes like the one in West Virginia, because well-funded unions and collective bargaining actually have led to less contentious labor conflicts.

What also makes the West Virginia Teachers strike similar to other effective acts of solidarity against entrenched right-wing power is that it was borne in the democratic cauldron of public schools.

It was public school students reacting to a horrific school shooting in a Florida high school who staged spontaneous protests across the country to demand sensible gun control and call out the National Rifle and politicians who accept their donations for opposing any gun control bills.

The students have been joined by teachers who are also calling for an end to gun violence. The upsurge shows no signs of withering.

These protests from public school teachers and students are mere baby steps for what is needed to overcome the powerful and unjust entrenched forces in society. But those who support progressive change must embrace them.

Where From Here?

Some observers have accused West Virginia teachers of settling for "toxic terms," because Republican Senators in the legislature have vowed to make up the cost for the 5 percent raise by gouging funding for general government services and Medicaid. Spokespeople in the governor's office disagree, saying money for the raise could come from cuts in executive branch spending or from new appropriations resulting from expected revenues increases.

A deal on the state's broken state employee health insurance program, a driving concern in the negotiations, also has yet to be worked out. But the teachers persuaded the governor to create a bipartisan task force, including current and former state employees, to hammer out the details.

In the meantime, the strike's results, and the organizing and communications effort that brought the results about, seem to be galvanizing a movement for progressive change that could carry into November elections.

"Communicating via social media was empowering because everyone could watch hearings and share information without an intermediary," Frankenberry told me. "Pictures and videos of communities supporting workers, teachers taking care of their students during the strike, and massive mobilizations in the state capital inspired and powered solidarity."

"This massive action has gotten more voters to pay attention to what happens at the statehouse and how it directly affects their lives," wrote Zuckett. "'We'll Remember in November' was a common chant in the halls of the capitol."

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