Education nation

Lessons from West Virginia strikes

‘You have to be organized and stay united’

American Federation of Teachers Teachers and school staff in West Virginia celebrate after lawmakers indefinitely postpone a vote on the school privatization bill that triggered the state’s second teacher walkout in as many years.

Teachers in West Virginia — a “right-to-work” state with no right to collectively bargain or strike — have proven adept at defending themselves and their students against a hostile Republican administration intent on undermining public education.

In February 2018, some 35,000 West Virginia educators walked off the job for nine days and won a 5 percent pay increase — their first raise in four years. Their red-state strike drew national media attention and spurred a wave of teacher walkouts that is still rolling across the country.

Roughly a year later, West Virginia Republicans introduced an omnibus education bill that teachers saw as direct retaliation for their first job action. State lawmakers scuttled the offending bill in the first day of the teachers’ second walkout, which shut down schools for two days in all but one of the state’s 55 districts.

What accounts for their power?

“You have to be organized and stay united,” said Fred Albert, a math teacher during the 2018 strike who went on to be elected president of AFT-West Virginia in November.

In the 2018 strike, “55 United” — a reference to the teachers in the state’s 55 counties — became a rallying cry. The three state education unions — the AFT-WV, the West Virginia Education Association and the School Services Personnel Association — coordinated their actions and held firm.

“I learned to trust my membership,” said Stacey Strawderman, a 7th-grade teacher and the president of the AFT local in Marion County. “The members paid attention more than we thought and learned the legislative process.”

Josh Gary, a high school history teacher and president of the AFT local in Marshall County, said he and his colleagues learned the sacrifices required in the fight for “bigger issues than just you.”

Gary, whose father was a coal miner, said he grew up knowing “you took care of each other in a union.” He gave up weekends with family and on numerous occasions drove three hours from his remote part of the state to the Capitol building in Charleston to participate in the protests.

He said the two successful strikes have given him fresh hope for the union movement, teachers and public education as a whole. “I have a newfound respect for the workers’ rights movement, and the people I work with feel that way, too,” he said. “We had a life lesson in real time.”

The omnibus education bill introduced in February in West Virginia’s House of Delegates tied a second 5 percent pay raise for teachers to the establishment of charter schools in the state and private-school vouchers.

State lawmakers withdrew the bill hours into the second walkout, but West Virginia teachers remain wary of a Legislature that has earned their distrust as they await a “clean bill” with only the pay raise.

“We have reason to celebrate, but we have to be cautious,” Albert said. “I’m hoping that our victory holds.”

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