West Virginia teachers declare victory after statewide strike...

Striking West Virginia teachers declared victory on March 6, 2018 and returned to work on March 7. The strike, the first in more than two decades, won improved pay and health benefits (which officials had tried to reduce). The strike, which was "illegal" under West Virginia law, was virtually 100 percent successful in all of the state's 55 counties.

The 'illegal' strike won!The final week of the strike was reported widely, including the lengthy story from The New York Times (below here):

West Virginia Raises Teachers’ Pay to End Statewide Strike, By JESS BIDGOOD, MARCH 6, 2018

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The statewide teachers’ strike that shuttered West Virginia schools for almost two weeks appeared all but over on Tuesday when Gov. James C. Justice signed a bill to give teachers and other state employees a 5 percent pay raise.

A crowd of teachers wearing the red T-shirts that have come to symbolize their strike cheered as Mr. Justice, a Republican, signed the pay raise bill in a theater on the Capitol grounds. The bill had been passed unanimously earlier in the day by both houses of the Republican-controlled Legislature.

“We’re going to school tomorrow,” said Heather Acord, an elementary schoolteacher from Wayne County, with relief obvious on her face. “We got everything we asked for.”

Unlike a previous proposed raise that was backed by Mr. Justice and the State House of Representatives, the deal reached on Tuesday had the support of Mitch Carmichael, the president of the more conservative State Senate. Mr. Carmichael said the deal would probably lead to painful cuts in other parts of the state budget; another Republican senator, Craig Blair, said in a conference committee that Medicaid would be among the areas cut.

“These things come at a cost,” Mr. Carmichael said.

But as he signed the bill, Mr. Justice tried to dispel the suggestion that the pay raise would come at the expense of Medicaid recipients.

“There’s not a chance on this planet that’s going to be the case,” Mr. Justice said. “We have cash in the balances in Medicaid that will absolutely backstop any cuts whatsoever from Medicaid.”

The strike ground the state’s public schools to a halt for nine days, a remarkable show of defiance by the teachers in a state where the power of organized labor, once led by strong mining unions, has greatly diminished. Along the way, the teachers disregarded union leaders’ advice to return to work when the governor first promised them the raise last week, deciding in meetings at malls and union halls and in Facebook groups that they would stay out until their raise was enacted in law.

“Maybe our voices are being heard, finally,” said Danielle Harris, a third-grade teacher from Fayette County, whose eyes filled with tears after Mr. Justice announced the deal on Tuesday. “These strikes aren’t for nothing.”

Dale Lee, the president of the West Virginia Education Association, one of the teachers’ unions, said the pay raise was probably sufficient to get teachers back to the classroom. School systems in some of the state’s 55 counties, including Kanawha and Putnam, announced even before Mr. Justice signed the pay raise bill that they would reopen on Wednesday.

“It appears the strike will end,” Mr. Lee said after the deal was announced.

The pay raise was the main point of contention in the final days of the strike, but the teachers have also demanded some relief from sharply rising health insurance costs. The governor has promised to address that issue through a state task force. Both union leaders and rank-and-file teachers have welcomed that move.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Kerry Guerini, a teacher from Fayette County, who stood in the Capitol on Tuesday with a sign that said, “Will teach for insurance.”

“A 5 percent raise isn’t going to feel like very much when we have so much coming out for insurance,” Ms. Guerini said. Nevertheless, she added, “I’m ready to go back.”

Mr. Carmichael, whose resistance to the raises had made him a key antagonist for the striking teachers, insisted on Tuesday that he did not want to pass anything “just to appease a special-interest group.” The deal came about, he said, because lawmakers decided to offset the cost of the raises with budget cuts, rather than rely on optimistic revenue estimates the governor had offered.

The raises for state workers were expected to cost the state treasury a total of about $110 million a year. Some of the money for the raises would be redirected from amounts the governor had requested for tourism promotion and the state Department of Commerce, but lawmakers in the Senate said additional spending cuts would probably be required. Mr. Blair, the Republican who heads the Senate’s Finance Committee, said in a meeting that some of the money could be taken from Medicaid.

Mr. Carmichael told reporters that the scale of Medicaid cuts was “not absolutely determined,” because lawmakers were still “scouring the budget” for more places to cut.

The prospect nevertheless alarmed some Democratic lawmakers.

“I want to make sure there’s not a back-room deal here that’s punishing people who are too poor to go to the doctor,” Michael A. Woelfel, a Democrat, said on the Senate floor. “Don’t do this on the backs of the Medicaid recipients.”

The teachers, who do not have a labor contract with the state, are among the lowest paid in the nation, on average, and had not had an across-the-board raise in four years. They walked off the job Feb. 22, saying they had been pushed to the brink by low pay and rising costs in their health insurance plan.

“Teachers across the state came together for one goal,” said Renita Benson, 54, a remedial reading teacher from Calhoun County, who stood near the Capitol’s soaring rotunda on Thursday. “It’s not the raise, as much as it is having the respect that we deserve from the government, and I think that was proven today.”

But at least one report (in the Charlestown Gazette Mail) as quoted by blogger Diane Ravitch notes that the teachers may not have really won their demands for better health care benefits:

Shortly after [Governor] Justice announced a deal had been reached, a group of Democratic lawmakers appeared before the crowd, urging the audience to show up for the November election, when all 100 House members, among other lawmakers, have their seats up for grabs.

“If you do not come back this November, they’re going to come back with vengeance,” said Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton.

He noted that Public Employees Insurance Agency health coverage, which has been the primary concern among many striking employees, isn’t “fixed.” Lawmakers are planning to provide enough funding to keep any premium increases and benefit cuts at bay through at least mid-2019, and the governor has established a task force to study long-term solutions.

“It’s not going to get fixed with the makeup of this current Legislature,” Sponaugle said.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, also brought up PEIA.

“Remember who made you come here the last two weeks,” Romano said, “and remember in November.”

Union leaders recognized the excitement of solidarity. There has never been a strike that engaged teachers in all 55 counties. Only 47 counties participated in the last strike, in 1990.

And the teachers know that the movement they started is inspiring teachers in Oklahoma:

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association union, said of the strike that “teachers and service professionals across the state have put their lives on the line and put them on hold to make sure democracy was upheld and that their voices were heard. This allows teachers to come back to West Virginia and stay. We’re turning the corner, folks; it’s time to come back home.

“I think we’ve awakened a sleeping giant,” Lee said. “Now we’ve learned that, if we open our eyes and unite collectively and watch the process and make sure that we’re following the process, that we have strength, far more than we ever believed.”

He said he isn’t concerned about the possibility of not having 180 separate school days, saying teachers “know that they will be able to get [students] to the point they need to be.”

Before the crowd dispersed Tuesday, it chanted “West Virginia first; Oklahoma next!” Oklahoma school employees have been mulling a strike, according to news reports.


Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

2 + 4 =