Thousands of demonstrators gathered inside the West Virginia state Capitol erupted in wild cheers, tears of joy and relief, and a spontaneous rendition of the state of West Virginia’s official song following the unanimous passage of a bill by the state Senate that effectively ended the nine-day West Virginia strike by teachers and public employees. The bill, which cleared the chamber around noon on Tuesday, was the most generous to state employees of any bill to that point, and clearly established them as winners in the wildcat strike which closed all public schools across the state’s 55 counties.
Shenanigans in the Senate
The result on Tuesday was hardly predictable based on the events of the preceding couple of days. On Saturday, the state Senate passed a bill which prescribed a one-time 4% raise for teachers and other state employees. This directly contradicted an earlier deal authorizing a 5 percent raise which the teachers had stuck with the Governor in good faith, and which had subsequently been passed by the state House. Only the day before, the Governor had re-affirmed the deal, had advised the teachers to settle for nothing less, and had admonished school superintendents to stand with their teachers. What was so surprising about the rancor between the Senate on one side, and the Governor and the House on the other, is that all three are Republican-controlled.
The teachers took the passage of the 4 percent raise as a direct slap in their face and a betrayal of the previous agreement. To make matters worse, after passing the lower percentage raise, the Senate sent the wrong bill over to the House for consideration. They forwarded a proposed bill for 5 percent which they had not even voted on. Most teachers perceived this as either extreme incompetence, or an intentional attempt to muddy and delay the legislative process in an effort to weaken their resolve and unity.
If the shenanigans of the Senate on Saturday truly were an effort to discourage teachers and other state employees, it did not have the desired effect. In a strike that was typified day after day by large turnouts of impassioned demonstrators, on Monday the meter was cranked up to a whole new level. By noon over 5,000 demonstrators had filed into the state Capitol, prompting the doors to be shut for security and fire concerns, the first time that had happened in the strike. Likewise, several thousand more lingered outside on the steps of the Capitol, and earlier in the day a chain of people surrounded the Capitol building, no small feat, and prayed for a just and swift resolution to the strike. It was clear that the protesters in this standoff were not going away until the issue was settled. In many ways, the legislative action on Monday seemed uneventful. But behind the scenes intense negotiations among the Governor, House, and Senate were occurring which would lay the groundwork for resolution the following day.
Real progress this time
In some sense, it seems very sad that teachers and other state workers have to strike, fight, and claw like crazy to gain a 5 percent raise. What is that after inflation, about a one or two point gain? Furthermore, the fact that Senate leaders, after passing the bill, touted it as the largest raise for public employees in state history seems almost as egregious as it is good. It typifies the struggles that teachers and other public employees are having in this country, in recent years especially, in trying to maintain any kind of decent standard of living. But make no mistake, in this strike the teachers along with their fellow state workers actually made real progress both in terms of tangible economic benefit, and in terms of principle.
Prior to the raise just passed which will become effective July 1, the teachers had not had an upward adjustment in four years, which meant due to inflation they had experienced annual pay cuts during that time. Likewise, the meager annual increases which the government had proposed for them prior to walking out (1 to 2 percent) would have meant that they would continue to go backwards in terms of real income over the next four years.
The health insurance situation which was about to be forced on them was even worse. In addition to substantially increasing premiums and declining benefits, state employees that were not in optimum health, according to blood tests and body measurements, would have been required to enter an intrusive wellness program that included required, frequent reporting of efforts towards mandatory health goals. The deal reached by the strike included a continuation of the premiums and benefits of the prior health plan for 16 months, and the appointment of a task force to find a long-term funding solution to the healthcare issue during that time. Other important gains made were that the legislature agreed to table proposals during the current legislative session to do away with teacher seniority, and to take money away from public schools for the sake of charter schools.
An example for us all
As important as were the real economic benefit that the teachers and state employees gained from the strike, perhaps as important were the principles that they fought for. They made a statement that they were not just laborers to be dealt with as the powers-that-be saw fit, but real professionals who cared about their jobs and their students and who would have a voice in shaping what the future would look like. They drew a line in the sand and proclaimed that during these times in our country when the middle class has been slowly dying a death from a thousand cuts, that for this year anyway, that would stop. That this time they would not take yet another step back in their ability to provide for themselves and their families. They would actually take an economic step forward and they would put their jobs on the line to make sure that it happened.
One aspect of the strike that I believe was under reported was that, to my knowledge, not a single arrest was made related to the walkout. Not a single case of vandalism or disorderly conduct. This is hard to fathom considering the large scale and fervor of the demonstrations that occurred at the state Capitol, and those that occurred on a smaller scale at numerous locations throughout the state. The teachers, and those that stood with them, set a sterling example for their students and all of us in the unmitigated power of determined, peaceful protest in a working democracy. Finally, I believe that the unity they displayed during the walkout kindled a political awareness and purpose among them that will definitely be felt in the coming elections.
People from West Virginia, like so many from other states in Appalachia, have felt the sting of various studies and statistics that often seem to place them near the bottom. But not this time. This time a proud and determined people made sure that they were not near the bottom, or in the middle, or even somewhat near the top. This time they were plainly first – first in standing up for working people, for education, for their students, and for themselves. All of us have taken notice, and all of us are better off because they did.
This report, and the accompanying picture, were sent to Forward Kentucky by Richard Mauro. He and his wife live in Kentucky, but his wife teaches in West Virginia, and took part in the strike.