Teachers strike appears inevitable (and illegal)

West Virginia is headed toward a teachers strike.  The likelihood of some form of significant protest by the teachers increased yesterday when the House of Delegates passed SB 267, which raises teacher pay by two percent next year and one percent each of the following three years.  It also raises school service worker pay two percent next year and one percent the following year.

American Federation of Teachers West Virginia President Christine Campbell and West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee agree that the size of the pay raise, health benefit concerns and other issues have fueled anger among their ranks to the point of a walkout.

“Unless things change we’re headed toward a work action,” Lee said on MetroNews Talkline Tuesday.  “We have to discuss all of our possibilities and all of the avenues we would take and make the decision to go from there.”

West Virginia last had a widespread teacher strike in 1990.  The walkout lasted 11 days and shut down schools in 47 of the state’s 55 counties. It ended on March 17th when Governor Gaston Caperton, legislative leaders and union representatives announced a settlement.

It’s worth noting that the 1990 strike was illegal.  Then-Attorney General Roger Tompkins, in an opinion delivered to then-State School Superintendent Hank Marockie, said that “There is no right to strike against the state.  Thus, any strike or concerted work stoppage by public teachers of this state is illegal.”

Tompkins opinion was based on a series of previous rulings by the Attorney General’s Office, as well as court decisions.  He cited a 1970 federal court decision supporting Governor Arch Moore’s decision to fire striking State Road Commission employees.

The court ruled that “to permit a strike by public employees at any level is inconsistent with the orderly process and sovereignty of government.”

Tomkins further found that teachers who strike are failing to fulfill their contract and could face disciplinary action.  “A county board may suspend or dismiss a striking teacher for insubordination or willful neglect of duty” under state law.

During the 1990 strike Governor Caperton threatened action against the teachers, but never followed through.  Lee says teachers today are not worried about possible ramifications of a work stoppage.

“Let’s say you fire 15,000 people… how are you going to replace them?”  Lee asked.  “That’s not really an issue in making the decision we are going to make.”

No, the counties are not going to fire striking teachers, even though technically they could. The fallout would be catastrophic.  Instead of the current 700 teacher vacancies, the state would have thousands.

A statewide strike would test the public’s patience, especially if parents have to arrange daycare for an extended period or accept that their children are missing valuable instructional time.  Teachers might ultimately win the battle of higher pay and better benefits, but lose some credibility in their communities.

However, the anger among teachers is real and, just like 1990, they appear willing to strike despite the potential consequences.



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