Today, for the first time in 28 years, West Virginia public school teachers are on strike. The job action is shutting down schools across the state today and tomorrow.
Teachers and school service workers say that their unusual and controversial move is a result of growing frustration over a variety of issues—salary, healthcare benefits, anti-union legislation and just a general lack of respect.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael blames what he calls the “union bosses” for the strike. Clearly the leaders of the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers West Virginia are playing a significant role in the work stoppage, but the uprising is more organic.
Teachers are frayed and flustered, worn down by what has become an increasingly difficult day-to-day grind in the classroom. Every teacher has stories about worsening discipline problems and absentee parents.
Perhaps instead of pay raises they should get combat pay.
The angst is real and the protests today and tomorrow, at the Capitol and in the counties, will be significant. However, it is going to be hard for the protesters to convince Governor Jim Justice and Legislative leaders to deliver more.
For the first time since the issue bubbled up, majorities in the House and Senate and the Governor actually agree on a pay plan—two percent next year followed by one percent each of the following two years.
They also agree on finding more funding to hold down health insurance costs for teachers, service employees and state workers. And there is a general consensus that bills viewed as anti-union will not advance.
That puts the state leaders in a position to say to the teachers, “Here’s what you are getting. Are you still going to strike?”
The next play is up to the teachers. A two day walkout is one thing, but if the strike stretches into next week, teachers risk eroding public support. It will become increasingly difficult for teachers to argue they are putting children first while denying them instructional days.
Additionally, the state and/or counties could go to court to force teachers back to work. Public employee strikes are illegal in West Virginia, so it will take about 15 minutes for a judge to decide that workers and their unions will be in contempt of court if they don’t return, leading to potential fines or firings.
A court order would actually be a face-saving way for teachers and service workers to return to their jobs without leaving the impression that they caved.
Increasingly, I hear lawmakers ask the question, “What is it exactly that teachers want?” The answer is a little complicated.
Yes, the unrest is about salary and benefits, but it is also about their demand to be heard. With the expected size of the protests today and tomorrow at the Capitol and at schools around the state, it’s going to be impossible NOT to hear them.