What are the West Virginia teachers fighting for? How did they organize a strike that broke the law and took the country by surprise?
Interview by Left Voice / The States
On February 22, West Virginia teachers began an illegal strike for better wages and health insurance. The governor refused to budge until Tuesday night, when he proposed a 5 percent raise and a “task force” to address the health insurance issue. The union leadership was quick to accept the deal, calling on teachers to go back to school on Thursday. However, on Wednesday, over a thousand teachers overtook the state congress and on Thursday, all 55 districts were still closed.
Left Voice interviewed Jay O’Neal, a middle school English teacher in Charleston, West Virginia. He has been an active participant in the strike and in the events leading up to it.
The issue of pay has been central for teachers. What is the pay like in West VA?
Our salary is especially bad. Here, schools aren’t primarily funded by property taxes, so salary doesn’t vary widely between between counties. There’s a state minimum salary, and right now, I think if you’re starting off with a bachelor’s, the state minimum is something like $33,000 for a beginning teacher. Some counties vote in levies and raise money to pay their teachers a couple of thousand [dollars] more. It’s such low pay that a lot of teachers have more than one job and are struggling. I know a teacher — her kid is on CHIP even though she’s working full time and everything; it’s put her in that bad of shape. It’s really tough for the new teachers that are starting low on the salary scale; plus, they have student loans to pay for.
I can give a little more perspective to the low pay because I have taught in other places. This is my third year in West Virginia. This is my seventh year teaching, total, and I’m on the seventh year of the salary scale — I’m on the “Master’s plus 15” on the salary scale — and I still make about $6,000 less than I did my first year of teaching.
When I moved here three years ago, I knew I would make less, but I didn’t expect this. For example, my second year teaching I was supposed to move up on the pay scale. I opened up my paycheck, and I thought, “There’s got to be something wrong” because it was less than my first year here. The issue is that the way the insurance works is that it is based on income, so my little $500 or $600 bump in salary from one year to the next happened to bump me up into the next tier on the premium structure, so I was actually bringing home less money in year two than year one.
A major demand was around health insurance. What is the issue for teachers with that?
It’s called the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), which is a state agency that’s funded directly by state government. Health care costs are going up every year. They say [it’s] by about 5 or 6 percent, and that equates to about $50 or $60 million additional every year, and our state government just hasn’t been putting it in there. So every year there have been cuts, there’s been slight premium increases, there’s been huge deductible increases, and they’re changing prescription drug benefits and all this stuff. All of this amounts to a pay cut for teachers and public employees. That has really been the root of a lot of this tension and anger. It’s just that year after year, people get more cuts because the state’s not funding the insurance like they should be.
What are some other demands of the teachers?
To be honest, I think at first we didn’t have a clear set of demands. I think people were just so angry that they just said, “Enough is enough.” The governor, in his State of the State address back in January, proposed a 1 percent pay increase for the teachers. It was 1 percent for the next five years (like 1 percent this year, 1 percent next year, etc.), and I think that made the teachers more mad than if he hadn’t even said anything. It just felt really insulting; a 1 percent raise doesn’t even keep up with inflation.
So I think at first there weren’t a super clear set of demands, but it hit a head with PEIA. This year they were trying to change the whole way it was structured, using “total family income.” So they would charge you based on how much you and your partner make, not just the person who gets the insurance through their job. For example, they would use the combined salary of my wife and me to calculate my premium. Instead of being in one of the lower tiers, I’d be bumped up to the very top tier. So my premiums were going to double, basically. So a lot of people felt really angry at that. It wasn’t so clearly defined at first, but everyone felt it: “We have to do something about PEIA!” And salary is an ongoing issue. We are 48th in the country in terms of salary now.
West Virginia is a pretty right-wing state, but it’s leading one of the most combative workers’ movements against the government that we’ve seen in years. How did this happen?
West Virginia has a long labor history and a really militant past labor history. There were the West Virginia mine wars that happened in the 1910s and early 1920s. There were really militant miners trying to unionize and literally fighting battles against the hired thugs by the coal companies. It culminated in this thing called the Battle of Blair Mountain where 10,000 miners engaged in armed struggle. There were Baldwin-Felts agents shooting at miners, and they had to call in the U.S. government to put it down. It was the largest armed insurrection outside of the Civil War in United States history. Obviously, there’s no one alive now who was participating in it then, but people remember that history.
Also, in 1990 there was a statewide teachers’, strike and a lot of people remember that. It set a precedent. People know that it’s possible. In 1990, 47 out of the 55 counties went out, and I think it was 11 days total; not all the counties were out the whole time, but it made a substantial difference: they got a big raise; they helped fix insurance issues back then; they got this thing called faculty senates that are a little like a union meeting in a school, so it made a big difference, and people remember that.
How was the strike organized among the rank and file?
All of this started in the southern counties who have that coal-mining history, some of the same ones that are where the Battle of Blair Mountain took place. They started meeting and got agitated enough to vote for a one day walk-out. So, they voted and got their union reps to help. We call them unions here, but they’re really associations because we don’t have collective bargaining. So, the unions helped with the votes and basically told their superintendent the night before, “We’re not coming to school.” And luckily they had enough support from teachers and school service personnel that the superintendent just closed school. This was in early February, and a few districts cancelled and came down to the capitol. When the rest of us saw that – because it was live streamed and all that – we were really inspired to mobilize here too. It helped set everything else off.
West Virginia is a right-to-work state, and you don’t have collective bargaining. What is the role of the “union”?
What we have would be called unions anywhere else. We have a branch of the NEA: the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers here. They call them associations here because we don’t have collective bargaining. So they don’t actually act like a union in that they don’t bargain our contracts.
In light of the Janus decision, I think unions need to be paying attention. We’ve had business-as-usual unions that are bureaucratic and not that interesting for people to join or to get involved with. People have been very passive members. The unions are going to have to step it up and be really involved and fight for workers. People will join unions if unions are active.
West Virginia is Trump country. What does this mean for organizing the teachers?
It’s weird because so many people who got involved are not left leaning at all. We got a lot of Trump supporters and a lot of people registered Republican. But the thing that brings them together is they all know that they are getting screwed. This is kept broad and about specific issues that affect all teachers: health insurance and our salary. It’s been interesting to see all these people saying “I’m not sure as a Republican that I am going to vote for these guys come fall.” So many of the teachers are coming to the capitol now and coming face to the face with their representatives who are voting against their pay raises.
What did teachers do during the days of the strike?
First of all, I want to make sure to mention that teachers across the state worked really hard to make sure all our kids are still getting fed during the strike. West Virginia is a high-poverty state, so teachers know that kids depend on school meals. So counties sent backpacks full of food and organized through churches and community centers to make sure kids have meals available.
During the strike, we had some members at the school with pickets outside who distribute information to the community. Teachers take shifts for that. Since I am in Charleston, a lot of our members are going to the capitol all day long and making our presence known in the galleries within the Senate and the House. There are also tons of people out in the rotunda area of the capitol, causing a raucous but also letting them know we are still here. There are thousands of people out there chanting while they are in session.
What has been the reaction from the broader community?
Overall, they have been really supportive. I think it’s helped that they’ve seen our efforts up until the strike. For example, we did a “walk in” at school where we still went to school, but for half an hour or an hour we held up picket signs. We’ve held town halls that let people in the community know ahead of time that we are having problems.
I will say I worry about what happened on Tuesday night [when it seemed that the strike was over]. That that may split us a little more. As I’m talking to you right now we’re not sure if we’re going to be out on Thursday. On Tuesday, they came calling a victory for our strike, but they haven’t actually signed the bill into law that gives us a raise and haven’t signed the executive order on the task force on the insurance. I think a lot of us are at the point where we don’t want to go back until these things have been signed. We don’t trust them.
So, we worry about how it got handled last night where all the headlines said that we got a 5% raise and that schools would open on Thursday. All this confusion may cause us to lose some public support because of how the media portrayed it as a victory without anything actually being signed or delivered.
Today, there were mobilizations in the state Congress, saying that teachers weren’t going back and that this wasn’t over. What are some of the contradictions of the deal the governor proposed?
Essentially, the union admitted today that they messed up. There was frustration by the rank and file that they came out and presented this publicly without talking to teachers first. So that’s why people are mad, and that’s why people are marching at the capitol. There is a lot of confusion. No one knew what was going on with the bills. The bills the governor said he had for a raise haven’t actually seen the light of day.
People are also pretty infuriated with the issue of the health insurance task force. It was our biggest issue, and we got a task force. We like the raise, don’t get us wrong, but this was our biggest issue.
So, at least we need to see documents signed by the governor. We want a solution to the issue of health insurance by September, before the elections. Some people want to go for more than that.
What would you say to other workers facing similar struggles for their rights?
I would say, if this can happen here, it can happen anywhere — I promise! There have been so many parts of this that have been frustrating as far as communication and things like that.
Also, I would say that we should stay focused on the issues and get many people involved. We should also not be afraid to step out and strike. I mean, what do we have to lose? They are not going to fire us all! So don’t be afraid to take action together!
I also hope that the rest of the country will look at West Virginia and see that it’s not just Trumpland. There is really cool stuff happening here. There is a really militant labor history, and we are seeing the revival of that now.
Also, please support our strike by sharing about our struggle! We also have a strike fund that folks can donate to.
This article was re-published on Love and Rage with permission from Left Voice.