They struck a deal with the governor. They want assurances from the legislature, too.
Thousands of public school teachers across West Virginia have been on strike for more than a week in protest over their pay and benefits. And despite striking a deal with West Virginia Governor Jim Justice on Wednesday that would put the more than 277,000 students affected back in school, teachers still haven’t returned to work as the state’s legislature — specifically, the Senate — has rejected the agreement.
The strike began on Thursday, February 22, the day after Governor Justice, a Republican, signed legislation providing teachers, school service personnel, and state police with a 2 percent salary increase starting in July and scheduling a 1 percent pay hike for teachers in 2020 and 2021. Teachers’ unions said the raises wouldn’t cover cost-of-living increases, and the bill didn’t address other concerns related to public employee insurance programs, health care costs, and payroll tax deduction options. The strike extended into this week, with thousands of teachers, parents, and supporters descending on West Virginia’s Capitol in Charleston to protest.
The strike appeared as though it was poised to end on Wednesday, after Justice announced that teachers and other education-related employees would be getting a 5 percent pay raise in the first year — provided state lawmakers approve the new bill. The proposed pay hike passed West Virginia’s House of Delegates, but the Senate has resisted. It approved a bill Saturday evening for a 4 percent pay raise, and that was rejected by the House of Delegates. (There was some confusion earlier in the evening when the Senate accidentally approved the 5 percent hike, but it then went back to 4 percent.)
WV’s Senate thought they passed a 4% pay raise for teachers, which is less than what teachers wanted. Teachers vowed to continue strike. Turns out Senate accidentally passed 5%. Parliamentary hijinks currently ensuing.
— Jess Bidgood (@jessbidgood) March 4, 2018
“This is a three-legged stool, right?” Kym Randolph, director of communications for the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), a teacher union, told the Washington Post. “The governor, the House, and the Senate. And I think two legs are very solid. I think one is a little wobbly right now, and some statements have been made by members of the Senate that are causing some people to question whether or not the Senate is fully committed.”
In a statement on Friday, West Virginia teachers unions said that their members are “ready to get back to work” but said there is one thing standing in their way: Senate President Mitch Carmichael. “Senator Carmichael has made every effort to derail the agreement with the Governor and keep our public schools closed again next week,” the unions said in a statement. “His rhetoric, posturing, and actions has inflamed educators, state superintendents, parents, citizens as well as his fellow legislators.”
Carmichael, a Republican, has publicly expressed doubts about the pay raise and the state’s ability to pay for it, instead suggesting that any extra revenue should go toward shoring up the Public Employee Insurance Agency, the state’s health insurance program.
”It’s easy to come in here and just vote for what people want, but that’s not what the general citizens expect of West Virginia,” Carmichael told local news outlet WSAZ on Thursday. “That’s what’s been done around here for too long.”
Governor Justice in a statement on Saturday criticized the Senate’s vote and called for everyone to “quit playing politics” and get children back to school. “This wrangling needs to stop right now,” he said. “For crying out loud, we are putting our children at risk.”
The strike is poised to extend into Monday if an agreement isn’t reached.
It’s actually illegal for teachers to strike in West Virginia. They’re doing it anyway.
Steven Paine, West Virginia superintendent of schools, in a statement ahead of the strike said he fully recognizes and supports the work of teachers and that they “deserve more,” but “the economic realities of our state may not allow everything teachers deserve to take place immediately.” He also pointed out that work stoppages by public employees are “not lawful” in West Virginia. State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said the strike was “illegal.”
Teachers have gone on strike anyway. West Virginia’s 680 public schools employ 19,488 classroom teachers and have enrolled 277,137 students. All 55 counties in West Virginia have closed schools for more than a week. In 2016, the average salary for West Virginia teachers ranked 48th in the country, according to the National Education Association, ahead of only Oklahoma, Mississippi, and South Dakota.
In a moment in which public unions are under an increasingly heavy threat, West Virginia teachers have shown why they matter and what they can do. The Supreme Court this week heard arguments in a case, Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, on whether employees can be required to pay dues to a union they don’t belong to.
According to the New York Times, West Virginia’s teachers were initially considering a “rolling strike,” in which teachers in a few counties would walk out each day. Donnie Ellis, the husband of English teacher Robin Ellis, said he told his wife if they wanted a change they’d really have to go for it. “It’s got to be all-in or nothing,” he said.
And so they continue to go all-in.
Update: Story updated with Saturday’s Senate vote and reactions.