The West Virginia Teacher Strike Was Just the Start

Teachers and demonstrators at a rally outside the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, last week. CreditScott Heins/Bloomberg

The statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia — one of the biggest in the nation in years — could signal the beginning of a new trend: a revolt against austerity policies.

The nine-day walkout, which ended Tuesday, was highly unusual. Teachers don’t leave their classrooms unless they’re seriously fed up, and West Virginia’s teachers were mad as hell. Austerity policies have squeezed them more and more each year: They earned, on average, $45,622 in 2016, with West Virginia ranking 48th among the states in teacher salaries, according to the National Education Association. Only Oklahoma and Mississippi paid less, and Oklahoma teachers, encouraged by the West Virginia walkout, are also considering a strike.

West Virginia’s 20,000 public schoolteachers have not received an across-the-board raise since 2014. Early this year, West Virginia’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, offered them a 1 percent a year raise for the next five years, but if inflation averages 2 percent a year for that period, this translates into an effective 5 percent pay cut.

Lawmakers defended the 1 percent raises as fiscally responsible, but teachers saw them as an affront. Adding to the pain, West Virginia told its school employees that many of them would have to start paying $300 more a month in health care premiums. The strike ended only after the governor signed a bill giving them a 5 percent raise effective July 1 — so instead of getting 1 percent a year, they get 5 percent this year.

West Virginia’s teachers were like the proverbial frog in water that was slowly being brought to a boil. But this frog realized what was happening and jumped. Moreover, state officials added insult to financial injury. When teachers from a few counties held protests in early February, Governor Justice belittled them, calling them “dumb bunnies.” Then the state health plan told teachers that if they didn’t download and use a “wellness app,” Go365, to track their steps, they would be penalized $500 a year.

Among those on strike was Rebecca Diamond, a second grade teacher in Wayne County, who earns just $39,000 a year after 19 years on the job. She told HuffPost that she works as a cashier at Hardee’s on weekends, for $8.75 an hour, to help support her family. When she started teaching, she knew that it wouldn’t make her rich, she said, “but I thought it would be enough.”

Austerity in West Virginia looks different from other places that have responded to recessions with budget cuts. In Britain, lawmakers cut public services, but they also raised taxes. In West Virginia, Republicans have used their trifecta power — the party controls the governor’s mansion and both houses of the Legislature, as they do in 25 other states — to cut per-pupil school spending, and that came after the state approved $425 million in bipartisan tax cuts.

Teachers say these budget cuts and tax cuts have hurt them, along with the quality of education. West Virginia has more than 700 unfilled teaching positions, as teachers head to jobs in neighboring Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania that pay far more. Instead of raising pay to attract qualified applicants, West Virginia officials want to reduce certification standards.

Oklahoma is facing its own severe teacher shortage, and dozens of schools in the state have shortened the school week to four days to cut costs. Teachers in Oklahoma have been following the West Virginia strike closely and are planning their own protests and strategies for a possible walkout. Teachers’ unions in Kentucky and Arizona are also watching. Jennifer Ward Bolander, a special-education teacher in Kentucky, told Bloomberg, “It’s definitely a subject of everyday water-cooler...

These rumblings come as the Supreme Court weighs a case in which the conservative majority is expected to rule that requiring government employees to pay union fees violates their First Amendment rights. That decision is likely to weaken unions by reducing their membership and income. And if public-sector unions grow weaker and less effective in winning adequate raises, then teachers and other public servants might get so fed up that, as in West Virginia, they go on strike en masse.

Shortly before Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin unveiled his plan to gut most public-sector unions’ ability to bargain in 2011, he said, “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.”

Seven years later, after Republicans have enacted austerity measures (and often anti-union policies) in state after state, West Virginia’s teachers have a very different message: We are the have-nots.

Katie Endicott, a high school English teacher from Gilbert, told The Times, “I live paycheck to paycheck.” When she learned about the spike in health care premiums and then the pay raise of only 1 percent, she said, “I knew I can’t just sit back. I can’t be complacent — something has to change.”

Ms. Endicott said she and her fellow teachers drew strength from their state’s proud history of coal miners’ strikes. “We come from an area that is known for standing up for what they believe in.” she said. “We’re just reviving the movement that was started years ago.” And they may, in turn, inspire others.

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