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West Virginia wildcat strike: Teacher protest continues across the state

Public school teachers in all 55 counties of West Virginia have been on strike since February 22nd, with Friday March 2nd marking the seventh day of school closures across the state.  The strike began after Jim Justice, the state’s billionaire governor, signed legislation which promised a 2 percent pay increase for all state employees, beginning in July, and followed by a 1 percent pay increase for teachers starting in 2020.

For West Virginia teachers (whose pay ranks 48th in the country for educator salaries), such miniscule pay gains don’t seem like much of an improvement. As English teacher Katie Windicott noted in a New York Times interview, a 1 percent pay raise “equals out to 88 cents every two days.” 

New York Times

But the teachers dissatisfaction is more complicated than a desire for an increase in salary. Beginning in June, changes to the policy of The Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) will lead to rising costs for monthly health insurance premiums, in some cases doubling the amount that teachers will have to pay. A 2 percent raise will do little to cover such an increase in cost.

A further concern for teachers is the perceived lack of respect shown to their profession  by legislators. West Virginia has struggled to attract or hold onto teachers in recent years, as better paid teaching positions beckon in bordering states such as Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, Increased vacancies have lead to legislation proposing a lowering of qualifications for educators, and now many full time teachers in West Virginia are technically uncertified for their positions. Such legislation leaves public school employees with the feeling that their profession isn’t taken seriously by legislators.

Planning for the walkout began in November through a private Facebook group. By March the teacher’s original plan of a lobby day, or a rolling work stoppage, had been stepped up to a full fledged walkout, with overwhelming support from teachers regardless of their party affiliation. Protesting teachers and their families now regularly fill up the statehouse in Charleston to capacity, while teachers who can’t make it to the capital protest in their own towns.

On Tuesday evening it appeared that a deal had been struck- a 5% pay increase was suggested by the governor and passed in the house. Union leadership supported the deal, however, many teachers felt the deal didn’t go nearly far enough, nor was its passage through the senate guaranteed. Opposing the suggestion of their union leader to return to work, teachers decided to continue their strike.

This means that West Virginia’s teachers are now participating in what’s called a wildcat strike: a strike that begins or continues without the consent of official union leaders (if you’re confused just think of it as the most badass version of collectivized work stoppage).

Wildcat strikes and collective bargaining battles are nothing new for West Virginia, particularly its coal miners. Some of the nation’s bloodiest labor struggles were fought during the coal wars (1912-’21), when miners living in the squalid conditions of West Virginia company towns (where workers lived in company owned housing and were paid largely in tokens that could only be redeemed at company owned stores- a perfect monopoly basically) decided to go on strike. The strike culminated in 1921 in the five day Battle of Blair Mountain, an armed fight between approximately 10,000 union miners and  3,000 state militia, police, and hired strikebreakers- it remains the largest armed insurrection in America since the Civil War.

The current teacher strike, while looking to the past as a rallying cry, has so far taken a much more lighthearted tone. In addition to wearing red t-shirts that recall the red bandanas worn by strikers marching on Blair Mountain, many teachers and their families have taken to wearing pink bunny ears; a reference to Governor Justice calling teachers “dumb bunnies” in early February.

Many of the 250,000 public school students in West Virginia rely on school lunches to keep them fed, and there has been a concerted effort by striking teachers to keep them from going hungry. Teachers have contributed time and funds before and during the strike, with many going door to door delivering bags with enough food to support families for a week.

On Saturday, March 3rd, the senate passed a bill lowering the proposed 5 percent pay increase to 4 percent (though at first they accidentally voted on and passed the house version of the bill, which gave teachers five percent, and had to do some procedural maneuvering to undo their mix-up).

Teachers have made it clear that they are not willing to settle for a 4 percent pay increase, and with no concrete plans to lower the raised costs of the public employees insurance program, all signs point to continued striking in the week to come.

In related news, public school teachers in  Oklahoma- a state with similarly low pay for its educators– are in the midst of planning a statewide strike of their own, and are no doubt following developments in West Virginia with rapt attention– as we all should be.  

Sources: The Atlantic, CNN, The Hill, History, In These Times, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vox.

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