In the largest unauthorized strike in the United States since the postal workers’ strike of 1970, teachers across West Virginia walked off the job yesterday. West Virginia ranks forty-eighth in the nation for teacher salaries, with the average high school teacher salary 35 percent below the national average. Notably, that figure does not include the additional costs of West Virginia’s Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA); for the average teacher, premiums have increased by $348 a year, along with rising co-pays, deductibles, and prescription drug costs. Gov. Jim Justice (R) initially offered a one percent pay increase, nowhere near enough to keep up with rising insurance costs.
Although public sector workers in West Virginia have no collective bargaining rights, the West Virginia chapters of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) nevertheless called a statewide strike on February 22nd to pressure the state legislature into raising pay and fully funding PEIA. After four days on strike, Gov. Justice offered them a deal: a five percent raise, as well as a sixteen-month freeze on PEIA costs and a commission to develop a long-term PEIA solution. Union leadership took the deal and, with Wednesday a designated “cooling off” day, asked teachers to go back to work on Thursday.
But instead of cooling off, teachers decided to keep fighting. Union rank-and-file were largely dissatisfied with the deal, and teachers across the state voted to keep striking on Thursday. While a five percent pay increase may seem like a win for teachers, it is not a permanent solution to the issues that caused the strike in the first place. Without a dedicated funding stream for PEIA, such as a severance tax on natural gas, insurance costs will continue to rise. Teachers decided to hold out for a real insurance fix, and launched a “wildcat” strike. These strikes, unauthorized by union leadership, are difficult to organize and as a result are exceedingly rare in the United States. West Virginia teachers, however, pulled it off: every county closed schools today, and the strike appears set to continue indefinitely, so long as county superintendents continue to be willing to call off school rather than file for an injunction to stop the strike.
Another problem with Justice’s promises is that there is no guarantee that he can make good on any of them, as any deal would have to pass through both houses of the legislature. West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael called Justice’s proposal “frivolous and ridiculous” and has so far refused to bring it to the floor for a vote. The bill is now headed to the Senate Finance Committee, and committee chair Craig Blair has said it may take a few days to analyze the bill.
It’s difficult to determine the road forward from here. It does not seem likely that continuing the strike will persuade Carmichael, or any six Republicans in the State Senate, to support a pay raise (to say nothing of a PEIA fix). All the same, Justice’s GOP-controlled PEIA task force also seems unlikely to produce a solution in the interest of teachers. Teachers simply don’t trust Justice and the legislature to act in their interest, and will not go back until there’s solid proof that their demands will be met. So long as the state government refuses to do its job, however, teachers are prepared to keep standing up for a better system for public employees: all of West Virginia’s fifty-five counties have called off school today.
The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons, the original image can be found here.
Sam Joyce is a second-year political science major and environmental studies minor interested in healthcare, climate justice and the labor movement. Last summer, he interned on a successful mayoral campaign in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. In Chicago, he is involved with the South Side Weekly, Students Organizing United with Labor, and the Young Democratic Socialists of America.