The energy bosses can afford to pay

June 18, 2018

Tyler Barton and Ryan Powers report from West Virginia as teachers send a message on how to save health care system for public-sector workers: Tax the corporations.

WEST VIRGINIA teachers are finished with a school year that included unprecedented statewide strikes and protests that electrified the labor movement across the country — but the struggle isn’t finished.

Teachers and their supporters have been organizing this month and last around one of the main issues that sparked the rebellion — the uncertain future of the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) that provides health coverage for state workers.

The mobilizations showed the determination of teachers to keep fighting around issues that affect them and all state workers — but they also raise questions about what it will take to win all of the teachers’ just demands.

On June 11, more than 200 people, mainly teachers and their supporters, gathered in the capital of Charleston for the final hearing of a 21-meeting tour to discuss the future of PEIA.

West Virginia teachers speak out at a public hearing in Charleston, West Virginia
West Virginia teachers speak out at a public hearing in Charleston, West Virginia

Since May 1, hundreds of people have showed up to public hearings all over the state to discuss their ideas about how to fix the state’s system for providing health coverage to public employees. According to Gov. Jim Justice’s office, attendance at each of the hearings varied between nearly 50 and 250 people.

After a successful struggle this winter to increase public employee pay and temporarily defend the PEIA, whch covers more than one in seven West Virginians, teachers are continuing to organize to fully fund the public health insurance agency.

The legislative agreement that got teachers to return to the classroom — won after rank-and-file educators dramatically rejected and organized against an agreement announced by Justice and leaders of the state teachers’ unions — included a 5 percent pay increase for all public employees, as well as a 17-month moratorium on unpopular changes to PEIA, including increased premiums.

The state agreed to create a task force to find a long-term solution so that PEIA would be fully funded without increasing premiums. Justice appointed a task force of 28 people, primarily state legislators, corporate executives and union officials. Teachers organized to make their message heard at the series of public hearings held for the commission.

AT THE public hearings, two approaches for dealing with the problem emerged: One focused on looking for ways to find efficiencies within the agency, while the other looked to taxing corporations and wealthy individuals to provide high-quality, affordable care through a fully funded agency.

Concrete proposals like that of state Sen. Richard Ojeda to raise the natural gas “severance tax” as a PEIA revenue source are overwhelmingly popular among teachers and other public employees.

Unfortunately, in keeping with West Virginia’s long history of government collusion with the fossil fuel industry, state politicians have tended to overlook the views of their constituents. Instead, they have helped to make the state’s vast natural resources cheaply available to out-of-state coal, oil, and gas corporations.

In the words of Kanawah County teacher Olivia Morris: “West Virginia is charging Taco Bell prices for Angus beef gas.”

A petition calling for the severance tax, charged to companies that extract gas, to be increased to 7.5 percent — which would bring in a projected additional $93 million next year alone — was circulated by a grassroots group of public employee activists at a pre-hearing rally outside the Charleston meeting. The petition was eagerly signed by most hearing attendees.

During the hearings, many teachers supported going even further in taxing corporations and the rich.

Charleston teacher Jay O’Neal, who spoke at the final hearing, explained that by reversing a Bush-era corporate income tax cut, along with implementing the natural gas severance tax, the state could raise $250 million over five years — enough to cover the rising costs of PEIA over that time and create a $75 million surplus.

Pre-empting skepticism from task force members, O’Neal offered other possible revenue sources as well.

“Some will say these taxes can be volatile, and that’s true — so I would encourage the task force to look at a few other options, like reinstating the business franchise tax, reinstating the estate tax and even implementing a 3 percent wealth surcharge on incomes over $200,000 per year,” O’Neal suggested to rapturous applause from the audience. “None of these revenue sources would affect regular, working West Virginians.”

Despite popular support for such proposals, political leaders in the state remain unconvinced.

“Many of the suggestions have centered around raising taxes on the people of West Virginia or on corporations, business, job creators,” said Senate President and Lieutenant Gov. Mitch Carmichael, infamous for his close ties to the fossil fuel industry, at a 200-person hearing in Morgantown on June 8.

Carmichael tried to twist these proposals into a claim that public workers want something no one else gets. Teachers, Carmichael claimed, think health care “should be free. Most of the people in West Virginia realize we all have to contribute to our health care costs.”

WHILE THE hearings in June drew out larger crowds, many of the earlier ones had lower attendance than some organizers had hoped.

At a pre-hearing rally outside the Charleston meeting, Mercer County teacher Peggy Moore explained, “I’m here to help keep the energy alive. We’ve got to keep the momentum going so they know we’re still serious.”

Moore thinks the low attendance reflected the timing of the tour. “It has been a really long semester,” she said. “I know a lot of people feel punished because the school districts rightfully had us make the days up. That extended the school year, and I know a lot of people are tired.”

Asked what it would take to win a fully funded PEIA, Moore said, “I think it’s going to take electing new people. The people we have now don’t seem to be able to act, or they don’t seem to care.”

While talk of upcoming elections dominated the pre-hearing rally stage as union officials rattled off a list of Democratic candidates they endorsed and led the crowd in chants of “We’ll remember in November!” a more complex perspective could be found among the workers who attended the rally.

“We need different politicians and a legislature that listens,” said Kayla, a teacher from Kanawha County. “But if it comes down to it, we will go on strike again. It worked because it put all eyes on them.”

Many of the educators present shared a similar perspective. During his rousing speech at the task force hearing, O’Neal said:

For years, PEIA has undergone cuts while our leaders have appropriated no additional funding for the program. Every November at public hearings, people share heart-wrenching stories about how all these higher costs affected them. Nothing changed. For years, many of us called, e-mailed, and visited our legislators, asking them to provide additional funding for the PEIA. Nothing changed.

Finally, in February, teachers and school service personnel walked out of their workplaces and demanded real change on the PEIA crisis. Guess what? Something changed.

Bill Denham, a teacher at Riverside High School in Belle, near Charleston, expressed similar sentiments:

The strike was huge. I don’t think we’d be where we’re at today if we didn’t strike. I think we need to make them fear another strike. We always need to be on the verge of another strike. We need to shut down all 55 counties again if they don’t fix PEIA. It’s what we’re going to do. We’re the action-makers, not them.

Richard Ojeda, the Democratic state senator and supporter of the strike who gave voice to the teachers’ demands back in the winter, struck the same tone.

“I think this is going to get won,” Ojeda said. “The 5 percent raise was not what it was about. It was about health care. We aren’t waiting until after January. If they don’t want these people filling their halls, they better start acting. These people aren’t going to wait.”

MOVING FORWARD, teachers and other public-sector workers have their work cut out for them. To win their fight for a fully funded PEIA, it may be necessary to wield the strike weapon once again. But preparing for a new escalation — and possibly a second strike — won’t happen overnight.

In light of the excitement about the possibility of a “blue wave” this November, the official apparatus of the Democratic Party, progressive nonprofits and union leaderships will push particularly hard to put activists’ focus on elections.

But if history is any indicator, redirecting the teachers’ precious time, energy and resources away from grassroots organizing and toward voting will only set the struggle back.

As at least one commenter pointed out at the Charleston hearing, both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed the working people of West Virginia for decades.

This seems to be behind changes in voters and their affiliation in West Virginia. Since 1994, the proportion of registered voters claiming Democratic Party affiliation declined by one-third, while Republican affiliate remained the same. At the same time, the proportion of non-major party voters and independents grew sixfold.

In the absence of a working class-led alternative, those unaffiliated voters — not to mention the many people who have given up on the electoral system altogether — are surely full of contradictory ideas about what kind of society West Virginians should work to build and how to get it.

On the other hand, the struggle for a fully funded PEIA — and the inspiring statewide strike that brought the demand into the spotlight — points toward just such an alternative.

The educators’ strike in February and March united workers across political affiliations, cultural differences and geographical separation to harness their collective power and shut down the entire state’s public school system.

Any strategy that relies on electing Democratic politicians runs the risk of devoting limited resources to candidates with a proven track record of failing to deliver justice, whatever they say on the campaign trail to get elected — while possibly alienating many people who are fed up with the corrupt political parties.

Meanwhile, there is a need to continue building independent, rank-and-file networks and caucuses among teachers, but that reach out to other public-service workers.

The teachers certainly learned many lessons about their own power during the strike, but so did their enemies in the halls of government and corporate boardrooms. If the task force doesn’t meet the teachers’ demands, it may not be enough to recreate the earlier strike without expanding the struggle beyond the schools.

One important aspect of building for the next round of open conflict will be making connections with other struggles. One obvious one is with the activists fighting against the same fossil-fuel corporations over their ecological destruction.

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Similarly, people organizing for Medicare for All, against the pharmaceutical companies profiting from the opioid epidemic in Appalachia, and in coalition with the Poor People’s Campaign — which had supporters present at the hearing in Charleston — can all make important allies.

Funding the PEIA might also be tied to state spending priorities more generally — considering that state spending on jails and prisons in West Virginia has increased five times faster than spending on education over the last 35 years.

If teacher activists are able to maintain independence from the electoral needs of the Democratic Party, build grassroots organization with other public service employees and connect their struggle with related issuess, their potential to win a fully funded PEIA and a new direction for working class politics in West Virginia will continue to be an inspiration across the entire country.

Further Reading

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