West Virginia teachers hit the picket line

February 22, 2018

Roland Reed explains the background to the struggle of West Virginia teachers that will escalate with a two-day strike across the state beginning this week.

UNION TEACHERS and staff in public schools across West Virginia will begin a two-day strike February 22--their first in almost 30 years--to call for increased pay, an end to attacks on seniority and a real solution to the crisis of the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) that provides health care coverage for state workers.

"We've been looking for a pay raise from the former governor, who promised [a raise] and that never happened," middle school teacher Susie Doss told the Huntington Herald Dispatch. "It's been a promise for years. Never happened."

Meanwhile, the problems with the PEIA system have caused health care costs to rise drastically for public workers and their families, outpacing meager wage increases that stopped altogether since 2014. The state legislature has proposed only Band-Aid solutions for PEIA. "Slowly, slowly, the back is breaking," Doss said, "and then with PEIA, it's done."

The two unions that represent teachers and school workers--state affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association--have been organizing for months to win concessions from the state.

Teachers rally against deteriorating working conditions in West Virginia
Teachers rally against deteriorating working conditions in West Virginia (AFT-West Virginia | Facebook)

State law doesn't permit teachers to engage in collective bargaining--the state legislature directly sets the pay scale and other policies. The walkout and previous protests are part of an attempt to pressure lawmakers to come up with more money.

On February 17, thousands of angry teachers and their supporters gathered in the pouring rain in front of the West Virginia Capitol building in Charleston to make their voices heard.

The lack of real raises to the living standards for West Virginia teachers shows not only that the state doesn't care about its workers, but that it doesn't care about education for the children of West Virginia.

Bethany Reed, who came to the rally in support of her friends who are teachers, said the failure of the legislature to provide raises shows its neglectful attitude not only toward state workers, but toward the education of children.

"They are dumbing down education," Reed said. "They are lowering the standards instead of raising them, and it's going to make West Virginia worse than it already is. Our education standards are already terrible."

"The media as a whole isn't reporting the real problem," Reed added. "They're reporting that it's all about money. They're trying to make teachers look lazy and greedy, but it's about the policies people are passing right now. It's about the benefits that are terrible, and it's about the state not supporting teachers like they should."

Some state lawmakers are proposing a 2 percent wage increase next year, followed by 1 percent annual hikes in the following four years, but the state Senate and Republican Gov. Jim Justice want to hold the raise to 1 percent each year.

"It's an insult being offered a 1 percent raise," Allyson Mathis, a third grade teacher, said at the rally. "I'm here to support my teachers and to get what's fair."

Speakers at the event stressed the importance of other workers in the state and beyond supporting the teachers. West Virginia ranks 48th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in average salaries for educators. It was one of five states where average pay actually dropped last year.

Union leaders have argued strongly that declining living standards and conditions for teachers are due to the Republicans being in office right now, and that if union members want positive change, they need to vote to put Democrats in power in 2018.

But the attacks on working people generally, including in West Virginia, have been a bipartisan effort, and it's our duty to speak plainly about the fact that the Democrats don't speak for workers.

In fact, as Michael Mochaidean, a teacher and member of the West Virginia Education Association, pointed out in an article for SocialistWorker.org last summer, when the union supported Jim Justice's campaign for governor in 2016, Justice was the nominee of the Democratic Party, having changed party affiliation three months before he filed. Justice then switched back to the Republicans last August.

What's more, the WVEA endorsed Justice in the Democratic primary "against Jeff Kessler, a state senator and supporter of Bernie Sanders," Mochaidean wrote. "To at least some members, the WVEA seemed to be becoming nothing more than a rubber stamp for blue-dog Democrats."

Thus, the union's strategy of endorsing Democrats and then expecting they would pursue a pro-education agenda was tested--and found to be obviously mistaken in the example of Jim Justice.

The plans for a walkout this week show the opportunities for a different direction. As Marsha Klusmeyer, a teacher for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, said: "I'm actually retiring at the end of the year, but I recognize the need for improved salaries and health care, and it's time to step it up so we can all take care of each other."

Asked about the walkout, Klusmeyer said: "Well, it's something I've never done in my life, and something I never thought I'd do, but I'm in support of it. We need to get their attention."

Klusmeyer is right. The two-day strike action is the best way for teachers to put pressure on the state government, and they deserve support and solidarity from across the U.S.

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