So, what did we learn from the first day of the teachers and service workers strike?
First, the anger is real and widespread. Thousands of teachers and service workers jammed the State Capitol, filled the galleries and hallways, stood outside and waited their turn to get in the building and rallied at schools in every county.
That level of demonstration does not happen unless the participants are highly motivated. During the several hours I was in the Capitol Thursday, the enthusiasm never waned. Hardly a minute went by without chants, songs, boos and cheers.
Second, this is not a top down strike. A number of strikers emphasized to me that the unrest boiled up from the grassroots level. Teacher union leaders told me their next step will be determined by the members, not by them.
In fact, it seems the union leaders may have been caught off guard initially by the level of unrest. They are in a tenuous position; if they appear to acquiesce too much, the membership’s wrath will be turned on them.
Third, PEIA is the top issue. The pay raise is important to them, but health insurance is their main concern. They want a guarantee that a funding source will be dedicated to PEIA so that their benefits do not erode every year.
They are tired of their benefit structure changing every year and they want some predictability. The teachers and service workers I talked with don’t appear to be assuaged by Governor Justice’s one year freeze or ideas floated by the Legislature to put more money into PEIA.
Fourth, they feel disrespected. They aren’t buying statements from the Governor and legislators about how much they value teachers and public education.
The protesting teachers and service workers see the platitudes as hollow, even hypocritical.
Fifth, They are united. The teacher walkout in 1990 involved only the West Virginia Education Association, but this strike includes the WVEA, American Federation of Teachers West Virginia and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.
Certainly not all teachers and service workers are behind the strike, but those who are have enough support to shut down the entire state school system.
Sixth, the strike could turn into a political force. Unions have lost considerable political influence in recent years in West Virginia. If the enthusiasm demonstrated by the strike carries over into the 2018 election, it could be problematic for current members of the Legislature, particularly Republicans.
Seventh, where do we go from here? When asked about next week, the strikers I talked with said they would stay out “as long as it takes.”
However, those teachers and service workers have to decide whether a prolonged strike will force the hand of the Governor and legislators or cause a public backlash.