FLATWOODS, W.Va. — The occasional muffled cheer preceded the eventual final decision: state-level unions representing teachers and service personnel across West Virginia now have the authority to take a statewide action.
“There was overwhelming support across the state to authorize some type of work action for the leadership to be able to call,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.
The precise action that was decided by representatives from 55 counties, including the American Federation of Teachers in West Virginia and the WVEA, is expected to crystallize this week. WVEA President Dale Lee said there’s momentum for action, but he said there would be no immediate actions taken while the legislative process remained ongoing.
“That doesn’t mean we’re calling something on Monday,” he said. “It gives us the authorization. The legislative process is still early. It’s time to look at the legislation that’s moving, give us the opportunity to go in and try to continue to work the process for the best possible deal. But knowing that we have the opportunity, if the need arise, we have the overwhelming support of the state to look at actions we may take.”
Hundreds of representatives from AFT-WV and the WVEA trekked to Flatwoods amid rising tension between school personnel, Governor Jim Justice, and the State Legislature. Terry Sprouse, a bus driver in Lewis County and Vice President of the Lewis County Education Association, said the public needs to remember that teachers aren’t the only piece of this puzzle.
“It’s not just about teachers,” he said. “It’s about all state employees affected with the PEIA, salary increases, and all this other stuff. We put a name on it for teachers, but it’s teachers, service (personnel), all state employees that are being affected all across the state of West Virginia.”
Concern over stagnant salaries, less valuable benefits packages, and a perception that those running the state are operating an anti-education agenda has prompted unrest up and down the West Virginia for much of 2018, with demonstrations and temporary school walkouts in three counties in the Southern Coalfields, informational pickets and rallies along North Central West Virginia’s I-79 corridor, and large-scale demonstrations in the Eastern Panhandle.
“It’s coming from everywhere,” said Christine Campbell, AFT-WV President.
Campbell said there’s momentum in a number of other places as well, citing a recent rally in one of West Virginia’s most secluded places — Webster County.
“That’s a rural county, and it’s far out there,” she said. “They don’t have as many employees as a county like Mon County, but they had a really good group of people. It was teachers, it was service personnel, it was parents, it was students who came together and said we need to make public education a priority in West Virginia.”
County by county, those in attendance reported the percentage of their action authorization votes to the full body amid cheers. Those full numbers are not expected to be released until Monday. Dale Lee called it historic.
“It shows the unity of teachers and service professionals across the state,” Lee said. “And the two organizations… the unity of that.”
Monongalia County released their tally earlier this week, with 89 percent of the union choosing to authorize action at the state level.
The meeting comes on the heels of a press conference by Governor Jim Justice on Thursday, where he advocated for staying the course of his proposed 1-1-1-1-1 plan — even as a different pay raise bill works its way through the House of Delegates. Justice’s plan received a unanimous 33-0 vote in the State Senate, even as Democrats attempted to amend the bill to authorize greater pay for public workers.
A joint press conference is scheduled Monday to shed additional light on Sunday’s meeting.
WAJR’s Alex Wiederspiel and Brittany Murray contributed to this story.