West Virginia Teacher Strike Heads Into Uncharted Territory

Workers across the state continued the strike after a tentative deal floundered. Now their solidarity will be tested.
Workers have rallied at the state Capitol every workday since the strike began last Thursday.
Workers have rallied at the state Capitol every workday since the strike began last Thursday.
Dave Jamieson/HuffPost

The statewide strike by teachers and other school workers in West Virginia stretched into its second week on Thursday, as protesters filled the state Capitol for a sixth straight workday with no clear end to the work stoppage in sight.

The standoff between workers and legislators appeared all but resolved just two days earlier, when Republican Gov. Jim Justice announced a deal with union leaders to hike pay for teachers and state employees. But rank-and-file workers felt the plan didn’t resolve the most pressing concern for many of them ― the rising costs of the state employee health plan ― and were reluctant to end the strike before the legislature passed a bill guaranteeing the raises.

In a remarkable turn, workers bucked union leadership and vowed to return to the picket lines, carrying out what amounted to a wildcat strike. Schools in all 55 counties stayed closed on Thursday, a day Justice had expected everyone to return to work after a one-day “cooling off” period on Wednesday.

Negotiations in the West Virginia Capitol showed little sign of an imminent breakthrough to reopen schools. By Thursday night, all counties announced that they would be closed for Friday.

The previous night the state’s House of Delegates had passed the pay raise bill, which would boost salaries by 5 percent for teachers and other school personnel; and 3 percent for state workers this year. On Thursday, the state Senate moved the same proposal to its finance committee, which wasn’t scheduled to meet for the day. Many Republicans questioned whether the state had the money in its budget to pay for the raises that Justice had agreed to fund.

Republicans control both chambers of the statehouse.

Many workers have been adamant that a clear path be laid out to rein in rising premiums under their health care program, known as the Public Employee Insurance Agency, or PEIA. In interviews with HuffPost, several school employees said health care costs were a greater concern than pay, noting that high premiums could wipe away some or all of the pay increases the state would give them.

Still, some workers told the Gazette-Mail they would be willing to go back to work if the senate would at least pass the pay raise legislation, leaving health care to be dealt with later.

In the initial deal, Justice had said he would set up a task force to stabilize PEIA costs, and that unions would have a seat at the table. Workers were reluctant to take the governor at his word. Many of them wanted legislators to create a concrete solution to health care costs, arguing they had maximum leverage while they were on strike.

All hell is breaking loose,” one teacher told HuffPost Wednesday.

West Virginia teachers are some of the lowest compensated in the nation, ranking 48th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in pay, according to the National Education Association. The state hasn’t given them an across-the-board raise since 2014. Meanwhile, rising health care costs have caused some workers’ take-home pay to go down.

The massive school shutdown is the first of its kind in West Virginia since 1990, when 47 of the state’s 55 counties closed schools for 11 days during a labor dispute. Public sector workers in West Virginia do not have collective bargaining rights, so their unions don’t negotiate contracts with local school districts the way unions do elsewhere. Instead, they lobby the state legislature, which sets the statewide payscale and oversees the health care program.

The state’s attorney general made clear before the walkout that the state would view any strike by public sector workers as illegal. It’s possible that individual counties could start pursuing court injunctions forcing workers back onto the job if the strike isn’t resolved soon, and counties are determined to reopen schools.

So far that hasn’t happened, probably because there’s been a lot of sympathy and community support around the state for the striking workers. It remains to be seen how long that support will last if the strike persists, or whether all 55 counties will remain onboard with a prolonged walkout. A return to work by some but not others could begin to crack the solidarity of a strike that began with the slogan #55strong.

This post has been updated to note that all counties would close schools for Friday.

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