MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The local leaders of the Monongalia County branches of the WVEA and AFT-WV are looking forward to returning to their classrooms Wednesday morning — temporarily leaving their 55 United movement.
“I’m glad to be getting back to my classroom,” said Sam Brunett, a Morgantown High Art teacher and President of AFT-Monongalia.
“This has been the longest nine days of my life, that actually started on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at a small rally at the Capitol in Charleston,” said Heather Deluca-Nestor, President of the Monongalia County Education Association. “If you would have told me that day that the events that have taken place thus far were to happen, I would have never believed it in a million years.”
That rally was only the beginning, though. One after another, small rallies started popping up around North Central West Virginia and across the state. It wasn’t long after that that local union leaders began calling their members into informational meetings after school.
“We were just asking — and all we were asking for — was for our employers to provide us with the benefits and a competitive wage,” Brunett said. “I don’t think in any other business, those employees would be considered greedy.”
Those informational meetings quickly took a different turn, as county-by-county school employees provided overwhelming support for the authorization of a work action.
“Teachers and service personnel are taxpayers too,” Brunett added.
Brunett said “55 United” and “55 Strong” are now rallying cries for the working class — and can be rallying cries heard throughout the state and the nation.
“I think it’s woken up a lot of teachers, or even teachers that have been so busy that they haven’t been able to pay attention,” Brunett said. “They’ve become more politically aware, and they’ve become more attentive to those who are our friends in Charleston and to those who actually are out to do harm.”
Deluca-Nestor echoed that sentiment, saying that rallying cry formed into a movement.
“Within six weeks, West Virginia Education Association, AFT, and WVSSPA, teachers and service personnel merged to become 55 United — a statewide initiative,” she said. “We knew we had to stand up for all public employees and the state of West Virginia.”
That resulted in the five percent across the board pay raise bill, codified into law by H.B. 4145 on Tuesday. That five percent pay raise will include an across-the-board raise for all public workers who are included in the Budget Bill.
“Is this a movement? I think it is,” Brunett said. “I think it is a rebirth of that type of mindset for people.”
And Brunett said this boisterous movement needs to remain active and engaged. First, he said, they need to make sure that the pending Budget Bill actually includes the pay raises for state employees not included in H.B. 4145, as promised by the Governor and GOP Leadership.
“(Finance Committee Chair) Senator Blair was still very threatening in his language about making deep cuts,” Brunett said. “That we’re going to have to have deep cuts. Medicaid was mentioned for instance.”
Second, Brunett said remaining engaged will be vital to help guide the PEIA Task Force in finding permanent fixes to numerous complaints involved with the public agency.
“The amount of political awareness is unlike anything I’ve seen since I started volunteering as a union activist and president,” he said. “I’m looking forward to what they have to say — that’s my peers and co-workers and community. There’s no doubt that they’ve become more aware about their surroundings and about how those in Charleston affect us everyday.”
He also said he was looking forward to supporting teachers in Oklahoma, who have already begun rumbling about a potential work stoppage.
“They’re basically using our model, forming coalitions with superintendents and forming that type of message with our community just before ours is even over yet,” Brunett said.
That model is particularly curious, because whatever you called the last nine days — the work stoppage never technically became a strike. There were no picket lines to cross, Brunett said. Schools were closed throughout the entirety of the nine-day stoppage. Brunett said that was a critical difference between 2018 and the strike of 1990.
“We’re setting to go in to a regular school day (Wednesday), which is awesome,” he said.
Teachers didn’t have to risk crossing a picket line, which he said makes all the difference. That was a result of 55 county superintendents choosing to close school for nine days. And, of those 55, more than 40 endorsed the five percent pay raise bill, imploring the State Senate to pass it last weekend.
“They were adamant,” Brunett said. “And they were angry, just as angry as some of our teachers and school service personnel were with some of the responses that they were getting from the majority leadership.”
“Thanks to Dr. Frank Devono and the Mon County Board of Education for being an integral part of moving public education in the right direction,” Deluca-Nestor said.
Brunett said he hoped teachers would remain fully engaged with the community, and hoped to return the favor of support they had shown his school personnel.
“It’s been an amazing outpouring,” he said. “I don’t even know how to address other than thank you. So very much.”
Deluca-Nestor echoed those comments, also thanking students for their patience and support.
“We are truly grateful for the love and support we have received from our Morgantown community,” Deluca-Nestor said. “From the parents, to businesses bringing us drinks and food, to the teachers which have made trips to Charleston and the next day rose early to stand at their informational pickets whatever the weather and deliver food when needed.”
“The thank you list could go on forever,” she added.