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Senate passes bill clarifying that teacher strikes are unlawful in West Virginia

The state Senate quickly passed a bill declaring that a work stoppage or a strike by public employees is unlawful.

In floor speeches, Senate Republicans described the bill as a necessary reminder after school disruptions the past few years. Democrats described the bill as punitive.

“This bill simply clarifies work stoppages are illegal,” said Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, in a speech urging its passage.

“This bill simply clarifies that it was not the Legislature’s intent to facilitate illegal work stoppages. This is not a retaliatory bill. This is about making certain our kids, our most precious resource continue to be our priority.”

Senate Bill 11 passed 21-12 today.

The House of Delegates would still need to pass the bill and the governor would need to sign it for it to be reflected in state code. A similar bill, HB 2536, which deals with what should happen to school employees’ pay during a work stoppage, has also been under consideration in the House.

West Virginia teachers went on strike for nine days in 2018 for better wages and stable health insurance. A two-day strike in 2019 was in response to a broad-ranging education bill with a controversial charter schools provision.

Mike Caputo

Senator Mike Caputo, D-Marion, noted today marked the three-year anniversary of the start of the 2018 strike. He wondered if that was truly a coincidence.

“I don’t think any teacher in this state enjoyed walking out of those classrooms,” Caputo said.

“This bill does nothing to move West Virginia forward. It does nothing to further that profession. It’s meanspirited. I think it’s in retaliation for people standing up for what they believed in.”

Caputo, a longtime United Mine Workers representative, talked about where the teachers strikes fit into West Virginia’s labor history.

Addressing Senate President Craig Blair, he said, “Sometimes the only alternative we have Mr. President is to withhold our labor. If you look at the history of West Virginia, workers weren’t treated very well.”

West Virginia has long recognized strikes by public employees as unlawful, but that’s largely been based on interpretations of case law.

The current bill would express that directly in state code: “Public employees in West Virginia have no right, statutory or otherwise, to engage in collective bargaining, mediation or arbitration, and any work stoppage or strike by public employees is hereby declared unlawful.

“Furthermore, any work stoppage or strike by employees of a county board of education poses a serious disruption to the thorough and efficient system of free schools, guaranteed to the children of West Virginia by section one, article XII of the Constitution of West Virginia.”

The bill defines a strike or work stoppage as events when an employee does not report to work as required by contract, does not have leave and is not otherwise prevented from reporting to work by circumstances beyond their control.

The bill also specifies that provisions that normally permit making up time or alternate instruction delivery methods do not apply to work stoppages. It says superintendents may not close schools in anticipation of a strike.

The bill says county school boards should withhold pay for each day a teacher participates in a stoppage. And it specifies that if a school day is canceled because of a strike then those schools can’t have extracurricular activities.

Senator Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, questioned Rucker about the bill at the start of today’s Senate floor session. He concluded that the bill doesn’t do much to improve school systems. He suggested it’s retribution for the prior strikes instead.

“There’s no education value to it,” Lindsay said during a Democratic press briefing with reporters.

Senator Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, spoke up in favor of the bill. He said students experienced disruptions to their education during the strike years — and said the closures of school over the past year during the covid-19 pandemic have continued that disruption.

“I’ve had parent after parent after parent reach out to me, through this pandemic especially, to say they’re worried for their kids,” Tarr said. “They have not been able to get instruction in a consistent manner for four years.”

He said codifying the repercussions of a walkout could make some county superintendents think twice about cooperating.

“This actually requires a superintendent to take pause — and do you automatically cave to organizations that cheer our teachers on to fail our children?” Tarr said.

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee, speaking after the bill passed the Senate, called the bill simple retribution.

“It’s really a retaliatory bill because we’ve known since 1990 that it’s illegal to strike in West Virginia,” Lee said, referring to a historic strike that year.

“Many things throughout history are illegal, and when you push people far enough you stand up and you say enough’s enough and you’re going to risk the consequences. That’s what we did in 2018. That’s what we did in 2019.”

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