CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia is headed for a statewide strike of teacher and service personnel this coming Thursday and Friday.
The dates were announced at the end of a rally in persistent drizzle at the state Capitol, where the crowd stretched from the top of the steps across to the edge of the Kanawha River, with a sea of public employees surrounding the statue of “Lincoln Walks at Midnight.”
“We’ve been trying to negotiate with the House, the Senate and the governor. But it’s clear the negotiations are going nowhere,” Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association told the crowd as hundreds cheered and chanted.
“So, therefore, we are asking you to join us this Thursday and Friday in the first statewide walkout.”
Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, followed up:
“Thursday. Friday. The entire state of West Virginia will be shut down.
“We’ll be here Thursday. We’ll be here Friday. And if it takes more than that we’ll be here until we see action.”
This is the first time teachers have gone on strike in West Virginia since a statewide walkout in 1990.
Public employees, including teachers, have been pushing for higher wages and greater stability for the Public Employees Insurance Agency. In addition, teachers have been pushing against some education-related bills that they regard as disrespectful.
Lee told the crowd that it will take the first few days of next week to prepare.
“We’ve got to get organized. We’ve got to get everybody ready. We have to be here to let them know that we are standing united, all 55,” Lee said.
The crowd responded by chanting “55 united! 55 united!”
End of rally and announcement https://t.co/5PLa8eb0zl
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) February 17, 2018
Saturday’s rally was for teachers, school personnel, law enforcement, state employees and community members from across West Virginia.
Only teachers and service personnel are striking, though.
Last Sunday, members of the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia voted to authorize a work action.
For the first time in its 52-year history, the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association voted Wednesday to authorize action.
Besides being a practical matter of wages and health insurance benefits, the rally also had political overtones looking toward the coming election cycle.
Many of the Democrats in the Legislature stood on the steps at the Capitol along with union leaders. Some Republicans in the House of Delegates stood there too.
But speakers called out Gov. Jim Justice and Senate President Mitch Carmichael repeatedly.
The Senate and the governor have said a 1 percent pay increase next year for teachers and other public employees is the fiscally-responsible approach. Under that plan, teachers would also receive average 1 percent raises the following four years.
The House of Delegates increased the raise for teachers to 2 percent the first year.
The House also proposes using $29 million from the Rainy Day fund to shore up PEIA for the coming year.
Teachers union leaders have said neither the 1 percent or the 2 percent next year is enough to encourage teachers to remain in the classroom or recruit new teachers. They also say PEIA needs a plan for long-term stability.
House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, one of those who stood on the Capitol steps, said the situation has come to a strike because lawmakers have been unable to agree on a solution.
“It appears as if little, if any progress has been made in finding a resolution to the PEIA issue for a permanent fix, as well as a pay raise for teachers and public school personnel but all public employees,” Miley said after the rally.
“They all seem seem united such that on Thursday and Friday they are going to walk out.”
Miley said the Legislature still has a chance to avoid a teacher strike.
“I’m surmising that the reason they didn’t start it until Thursday was to give the Legislature and the governor the first three days of next week to try to find a resolution to this impasse,” Miley said. “To their credit, I hope we can find that resolution.”
Saturday’s rally was the second day of an enormous presence at the Capitol. Teachers from several counties on Friday filled galleries in the House and Senate and also chanted in the Rotunda.
On Saturday, buses came from all over the state, dropping off teachers and service personnel.
The Harris family came together from Fayette County. Danielle Harris is a teacher.
“We’re out here to support all state workers, not just teachers,” Harris said. “It’s high noon time for us to have a raise. It’s been many years since we’ve had a raise.
“One percent is not enough. It would give me about $30 in my paycheck. My PEIA would go up $300. We’re all teachers. We can do the math. It doesn’t add up.”
Dan McKinney, a teacher at Hurricane High School in Putnam County often called “Coach,” took part in the 1990 teachers strike. He said this situation is different because so many state employees are upset about their pay and health insurance costs.
“Then, it was a teachers strike. Now it’s a public employees issue. It’s a little different,” McKinney said.
As he spoke, McKinney was on a pathway along the Kanawha River, looking across at the state Capitol.
“But it’s better in the fact that everybody realizes the parliament there in that building is not taking us seriously.”