Strike amendment is latest lightning rod in omnibus education bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump says an anti-strike provision was amended into an omnibus education bill to reflect court precedent and to avoid the law of unintended consequences.

The amendment sponsored by Trump has inspired criticism by Democrats and teachers union leaders.

It says public employees in West Virginia have no right to collective bargaining, and any work stoppage by public employees is unlawful.

The amendment also says no county superintendent may close school in anticipation of a strike. And the amendment says that if a strike causes school to be closed then that school can’t participate in extracurricular activities.

During the past two legislative sessions, county superintendents across the state responded to walkouts by teachers and service personnel such as bus drivers and cooks by canceling school.

“In the last two years we’ve had two, and it is interfering with the ability of children to get an education,” said Trump, R-Morgan.

“That is not something that should be within local control, whether to have school or not. We have a duty to make sure we have school for every child in every county in the state when the law requires they should have school. The teacher unions do not set the school calendar.”

Trump, speaking on MetroNews’ “Talkline,” says the amendment is meant to reflect a 1990 West Virginia court case that concluded that “public employees have no right to strike in the absence of express legislation or, at the very least, appropriate statutory provisions for collective bargaining, mediation, and arbitration.”

Prior to the amendment, the omnibus education bill included the provision about canceling extracurricular activities but without the context that a strike by public employees is unlawful in West Virginia.

Trump contends that could have been interpreted by the courts as a statement acknowledging a right to strike.

“Could a court not read that as saying, there it is, there is some legislative authorization for a strike for teachers?” Trump asked.

Democrats in the Senate argued that the provision was retaliatory for the strikes of the past two years. And they argued that educators would not have made strides toward greater pay and benefits without the ability to turn out in force during the legislative session.

“I think that provision is basically an attack,” said Senator John Unger, D-Berkeley. “It’s retribution because the teachers did assemble, the service personnel, and they came to Charleston.

“And I think that anything some legislators can do so that teachers don’t show up and voice their constitutional right of free speech — I think they would like to have no teachers or service personnel in Charleston.”

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee acknowledged that Senate leaders had spoken with teachers union representatives prior to the special session.

But Lee said that if that had been a serious gesture then the strike provision never would have been amended into the omnibus education bill.

“They talk about wanting bipartisan support and bipartisan input, and the Senate president did bring us in to talk about the bill,” Lee said.

“But if you do that and then not listen to what we have to say and then your option is let’s make it even worse by making the amendments — ‘let’s really stick it to ’em by making these amendments’ — then that’s not bipartisanship; that’s not having input of the educators.”

Gov. Jim Justice

Gov. Jim Justice spoke with both the Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses on Sunday. He then spoke with reporters about his reservations with how the special session has been going.

The governor, who is also a high school girls basketball coach, spoke with the most detail about his concern over canceling extracurricular activities in the event of a work stoppage.

“Of everything, that needs to come off right now,” Justice said. “I’m a coach. What are you going to do in the middle of football season if we have  a work stoppage and we’re out for 10 days and we can’t practice, and we go back on Thursday? Are you going to play on Friday night?

“What happens if you do that? You’re endangering our students. You’re endangering their well-being by doing that. Now that needs to go.”

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