After broadcasting Talkline shows from the State Capitol my ears are still ringing. The sounds of the chants and songs by thousands of striking school teachers and service workers have been echoing off the marble walls of the Capitol since last Thursday.
Regardless of whether you think the strikers are right or wrong, the show of force has been impressive. No one I have talked with, not even the union leaders, expected the strike to be this big or last this long.
The Capitol hallways, the south side steps, the House and Senate chamber galleries have served as the epicenters of the strike, but the demonstrations have also occurred in every county. Teachers, bus drivers and maintenance workers have gathered in front of schools and on busy streets with their signs, encouraging supporters to honk as they drove by.
The strike has produced results. Governor Jim Justice was so shaken by the dressing down he received by teachers during his three-city tour Monday that he immediately increased the pay raise and issued an executive order creating a task force with a timetable for providing a more lasting fix to the Public Employee Insurance Agency.
The House of Delegates made quick work of the pay bill, passing it 98-1—a vote total normally reserved for proclamations supporting motherhood and veterans. The Senate, however, is less enthusiastic.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael believes dedicating an additional $100 million to pay raises and PEIA next year is fiscally irresponsible, especially since $58 million of that magically appeared Tuesday when Justice announced he had newly revised estimates on the amount of tax money the state will bring in next year.
Instead, Carmichael has said he would rather dedicate the newly found money to PEIA. That’s a critical issue that still needs to be worked out.
But back to the strike. The teachers and service workers have gotten through to the policy makers. They get it, but they cannot “fix” PEIA overnight. The challenges are just too big and too complicated.
The task force needs some time to gather information and come up with possible solutions. Teachers and service workers will have representatives on that task force, so those voices will be heard.
Teachers can certainly appreciate that will take some time. They should consider how long it takes for their students to master difficult material. Figuring out a better way forward on health insurance is far more challenging than Algebra II.
The legislation teachers believe is anti-union is off the table. A significant pay raise has passed the House and is being pushed by the Governor. Justice’s executive order has created a task force that will make recommendations on stabilizing health insurance.
The seven missed days of instruction are going to be made up later this school year, so apparently no pay days will be lost.
Teachers and service workers, you’ve made history. Your “55 Strong” movement has grabbed the state and its policy makers by the lapels and given them a robust shake. But don’t turn that shake into an assault on education.
It’s time to go back to work.