Education nation

An awakening in West Virginia

WVEA Communications

West Virginia teachers rally at the state capital in late February during their successful strike.

West Virginia teachers recently gave the nation a lesson in the labor movement’s power when workers stand united.

Working in a right-to-work state with no right to collectively bargain at the local level, West Virginia’s 20,000 teachers had no leverage to win pay increases. The teachers, who earn $45,000 on average, had gone without a raise for four years.

They decided to go on strike after state lawmakers passed a bill to raise pay for teachers and other public employees by 4 percent over three years while imposing higher health care premiums. Together, that would have amounted to a pay cut.

“It didn’t happen overnight,” said Christine Campbell, the president of the West Virginia-AFT. “We’ve been playing defense for a long time. The absolute breakdown of health insurance brought it to a head. I liken it to a dripping faucet that becomes a fire hose.”

West Virginia teachers went back to work on March 6 when the state Legislature voted to approve a 5 percent raise in the first year for teachers — and all state employees — that will add $2,020 to the average teacher’s salary.

The nine-day strike’s success is now spurring a nationwide protest movement among teachers in right-to-work states including Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona.

West Virginia is ranked 48th in the United States for average teacher pay. Many teachers work two jobs to supplement their low salaries.

Daniella Parent, a 6th-grade ELA teacher of students with special needs in Huntington, tends bar one night a week to supplement her $900 weekly income. “I have a car payment and a mortgage,” said Parent. “I wouldn’t be able to exist on my teaching salary alone.”

Fred Albert, a 6th-grade math teacher and local AFT president in the Charleston area, is the caretaker for the property where he lives. “That pays for my housing,” said Albert. “Without that, I’d be hard-pressed to make ends meet.”

Take-home pay is even lower because teachers have had to pay more and more out of pocket for health care. The state of West Virginia has covered 80 percent of the rising state health care premiums, in lieu of pay increases for public employees, for years. The state Public Employees Insurance Agency, which is not adequately funded by the state, proposed sharply higher premiums that would have wiped out the state’s proposed pay increase.

Under that proposal, premiums would have been based on total family income, not an individual worker’s income. Gene Estel, a high school health education teacher and union rep in Charles Town, said his monthly premium would have increased from $289 to “north of $400,” given his wife’s salary as an accountant, if the change had gone through.

With West Virginia teacher salaries so low, teachers have been taking jobs in neighboring states. “We’re losing young talent to bordering states like Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and Virginia, where they can make as much as $20,000 more,” said Albert.

West Virginia teachers were also concerned about the future of their profession. The state has responded to the teacher shortage by filling more than 700 positions with applicants who are not certified in their subject areas, Albert said. The state Legislature also attempted, but failed, to lower standards for teacher certification by eliminating the work-experience requirement.

“It’s disrespecting the profession as a whole,” said Estel.

The walkout had the support of superintendents in all 55 counties. With every school in the state closed, teachers were paid during the work stoppage. “It’s that rarity of a strike where all levels of management are behind you,” Estel said.

School service workers, including paraprofessionals, also joined them.

Teacher activism gathered steam in a Facebook group, and the message carried beyond the state borders through social media. But, Campbell said, it was the on-the-ground lobbying that made the difference. Teachers not only rallied at the state capital, but they also called their state representatives and met with them for face-to-face conversations.

“Legislators had to face teachers who told them, ‘This is our reality,’” Campbell said.

While teachers have returned to work, the health care issue remains unresolved. As part of the deal to end the strike, Gov. Jim Justice created a task force with union representation that will examine ways to control and reduce employee health care costs. Premiums will be frozen for the next fiscal year as the task force grapples with how to fund the state insurance plan.

Given the work ahead, Campbell considers the strike victory a beginning, not an end.

“It’s an awakening I feel is sustainable because the teachers did it together,” she said. “They went out together and they went in together.”

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