Editors note: This article was written on March 4. PBS NewsHour reports that teachers returned to their classrooms on Wednesday, March 7 after making a deal with the state government resulting in a 5 percent pay raise.
School’s out in West Virginia. It is not due to snow, wind or any other form of inclement weather, but rather because all of the public school teachers are absent. They are on strike, demanding better benefits and higher wages.
Public schools in all 55 counties of West Virginia have been closed since Feb. 22. They are expected to remain closed for the duration of this week, pending on whether or not a compromise is met between the state government and the teachers’ unions.
The teachers on strike come from all parts of the state, so their grievances are varied. But according to The New Yorker, their primary concern is that compared to national standards, they make very little money and their benefits are subpar. The teachers allege that the Republican governor of their state, Jim Justice, broke a promise to increase their pay.
The Washington Post conducted an analysis using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics which found that West Virginia high school teachers earn less than their peers in 46 other states and the District of Columbia. Elementary and middle school teachers do marginally better, besting just one more state.
The strike was prompted after Gov. Justice signed legislation providing teachers and other school personnel with a two-percent salary increase beginning in July of this year and promising a one-percent pay hike in 2020 and 2021.
According to The New York Times, the teachers’ unions repudiated this legislation on the grounds that it was not a large enough increase to satisfy their qualms about inequality between states, nor was it enough for teachers to live comfortably on.
“The crisis in public education in this state has come to a head, and teachers and service personnel have reached their breaking point,” said Christine Campbell, president of American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia (AFT-WV) in a statement announcing the strike on Feb. 14. “Experienced teachers are leaving the state in search of adequate pay and benefits elsewhere.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, added, “legislative leaders are sitting idly by as educator pay goes down, healthcare costs go up, and surrounding states poach some of West Virginia’s brightest teachers and pay them more.”
In response to the strike, Gov. Justice wrote an open letter to all state employees, promising a five percent pay raise in the first year, contingent on state lawmakers approving legislation to do so.
According to Vox, the strikers are waiting until State Senate President Mitch Carmichael approves the pay increase. The legislation has the support of the state’s House of Delegates — where it passed 98-1 — and the governor, but it needs to be approved the Senate too to become law. Carmichael has been hesitant due to his concern that the state is unable to pay the increase wages.
As of March 2, according to the Associated Press, the West Virginia Senate refused to vote on whether or not the teachers deserve the pay raise. Despite pressure from hundreds of protesters at the Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, Republican Senate majority leader Ryan Ferns made a motion to table the vote. As of March 3, the bill is still in the committee hearing phase.
Teachers made an effort to minimize negative consequences of the protest to students. One in four children is in poverty in West Virginia according to the Center for American Progress’s Talk Poverty project and depend on school meals to eat.
Because of this, many teachers in West Virginia made arrangements to ensure that the children would be fed. Teachers gathered bags of food for students, much of which was paid for out of their own pockets. “Before they made the decision to strike they wanted to make sure their students’ needs were taken care of,” a spokesperson for ATF-WV told CNN.
Technically, according to The Tampa Bay Times’ Politifact, this strike is illegal. But the teachers are doing it anyway. They have garnered praise for their bravery, dedication to the students and showing the power of unions from many left-wing publications.
“The current action is helping many people rediscover and reclaim a political legacy that was fading away,” according to the socialist publication Jacobin. According to American leftists and progressives, the protest in West Virginia has revitalized populist union-style politics. The New Yorker says that this was an intentional byproduct of the protest. The organizing unions emphasized that the strike began in the southern-most parts of the state, parts which were historically union strongholds.
Ken Fones-Wolf, a professor of history at West Virginia University, told The New Yorker that he thinks the strike may reflect a general turn in the state’s politics. If true, Fones-Wolf’s prediction would have national implications.
The editorial board of The New York Times wrote this week about the relationship of this protest to a United States Supreme Court Case which is expected to “eviscerate public-sector unions.” Justice Samuel Alito says that unions infringe upon “dignity and conscience” by forcing political opinions on their members. But according to The New York Times, these teachers are a model for how unions should operate.
Yet, the protesters may not be thinking about longterm, national impacts. One teacher who was profiled told The New York Times, “I take care of the bills in my family and knew I can’t afford it, I can’t. I have two children, I live paycheck to paycheck … I can’t be complacent, something has to change.”