CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A half-year after a statewide teachers strike, the battle of words is back on between Senate President Mitch Carmichael and the American Federation of Teachers.
Reacting to news reports about an AFT convention in Pittsburgh, Carmichael put out a series of tweets and a full statement on Tuesday: “WV Senate President Carmichael Challenges Democrats to Reject Socialist AFT Agenda.”
“This whole election process, this whole movement from the teachers perspective, this is big, big news,” Carmichael said in a Tuesday telephone interview. “It’s either you can bury your head in the sand and not realize West Virginians have delivered the biggest pay increase in state history.
“These outside groups want to make this issue about the election.”
American Federation of Teachers President Christine Campbell fired back at Carmichael in a separate telephone interview.
“We represent public servants, service personnel, state employees. They are the union,” Campbell said. “So to comment to call them socialist radicals while taking credit for the pay raise and health insurance pay raise that they had to walk out to get is a very interesting perspective.”
West Virginia educators — including teachers and service personnel – went on a statewide strike lasting nine days last winter. They wanted better pay and stable benefits.
The Republican majority in the Senate, including Carmichael, initially said a 1 percent pay raise was all the state could afford while pulling the economy out of recent doldrums.
As the strike continued, the pay raise offer became greater. Eventually, Gov. Jim Justice — who had earlier said the state could not afford more — struck a tentative deal of an average 5 percent.
The Senate majority continued to express reservations that amount could be afforded. The Senate majority at first moved only to an average 4 percent raise, applying it more generally to state employees.
Republicans in the Senate then agreed to the average 5 percent raises, both for educators and for other public employees.
West Virginia the first among several teachers strikes that took place across the country this year. The state set a precedent and served as a guidepost for teachers in other regions.
Such efforts were a prominent topic at the American Federation of Teachers Convention last weekend in Pittsburgh.
Speakers at the convention included former Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, as well as Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts.
Carmichael, who has drawn sharp criticism from West Virginia teachers, objected to some of the policy proposals discussed at the convention. He characterized those as “universal healthcare, free tuition, universal child-care and higher taxes to fund it all.”
“The AFT’s socialist agenda does not represent the values of West Virginian families, students and educators,” Carmichael stated in his release today.
He added, “I urge all West Virginia candidates to reject the union’s radical agenda, and pledge to work with Republican Leadership as we continue improving education outcomes for West Virginia students while supporting economic growth across the Mountain State.”
Carmichael actually backed a proposal last year that was shorthanded as “free tuition” for community college students. The actual proposal was more complicated than that, providing payment of what’s left of a tuition and fee bill after all other forms of financial aid are exhausted.
That proposal stalled in the House of Delegates and was not included in the Legislature’s final budget. Some budget goals had to be dropped when lawmakers agreed to higher pay raises for educators.
Carmichael stated today, “West Virginia is a model for achieving higher educational outcomes for students by increasing investment in education, including paying teachers more, all while balancing a budget and displaying fiscal responsibility.”
He said adopting the proposals from the AFT convention would be a step backwards.
“I urge all West Virginia candidates to reject the union’s radical agenda, and pledge to work with Republican Leadership as we continue improving education outcomes for West Virginia students while supporting economic growth across the Mountain State,” Carmichael stated.
Campbell said teachers have tried to work with Republicans but haven’t gotten far.
“It’s interesting there was a call to work with Republican leadership when there was an attempt to do this with the past four years,” she said on the telephone.
She said that has resulted in the majority pushing for charter schools, vouchers, alternative certification and “attacks on our rights and benefits.”
“The thing that improves outcomes is insuring we have highly qualified people in every classroom in the state,” Campbell said.
We all believe within our membership that they should be working with us, experts in the classroom to do all the things we all know achieve the goals we all want.”
She objected to Carmichael’s description of AFT’s goals as socialist but said the union’s objectives reflect the reality of a widening wage gap in the United States.
One of the budget goals laid out by Governor Justice and supported by the Senate majority was a “Just cut taxes and win” proposal that would have phased out property taxes for many of West Virginia’s manufacturers. The seven-year phase out was valued at $140 million.
The tax cut proposal was one of the budget choices that wound up being set aside as teachers kept up their efforts.
“It’s no secret that the difference between the highest earning people and the lowest earning people in the country is getting wider and wider. To say that we shouldn’t be investing in public education through including that wage gap is not the American way in my perspective,” Campbell said.
“I feel like we want everyone to be able to have a living wage. Especially the people serving the future of the country by educating children.”
She said the teachers union isn’t making wages and benefits an election-year issue.
She said those issues already exist and it happens to be an election year.
“People should be voting for candidates based on the issues that directly affect them and the communities where they live. If you are electing folks who support the things that you believe in then all of it should be an election issue,” Campbell said.
“To say ‘This is an election year, so that’s why everyone is talking about it’ — well that’s what we should be doing.”