Teachers and school service personnel throughout West Virginia walked off the job Feb. 22. The strike entered its third day as this is being written. This is only the second teachers strike in the state’s history, and the first to involve all 55 West Virginia counties. Thousands came to the state capitol at Charleston Feb. 22, 23 and 26 to demand that legislators act in the people’s interest.
The teachers, along with school service workers such as bus drivers and cooks, struck to protest continued low wages, rising health insurance premiums and poor working conditions that are hurting students. They are also protesting bills the Legislature has been considering that would weaken seniority rules for teachers and complicate the process of deducting union dues from paychecks, among other things.
“As far as teachers’ pay, we’re 48th in the nation,” teacher Annette Lester told the People’s Tribune. She added: “Our bus drivers make $20,000 and work all year, and they make $7,000 less than our senators, who only work three months.” She said that, for her family, if the projected rise in health insurance costs goes through, “Our premium will increase dramatically. I will lose an entire paycheck. I have a daughter with a heart condition, and going without insurance is not an option.”
She also noted the economic impact of the coal industry’s decline, the rise of opioid addiction in the state, and the direct connections between legislators and the pharmaceutical and energy industries. “People in our area are starving. The children rely on food banks and the schools to feed them, and our senators are bought and paid for,” she said.
Another teacher told the People’s Tribune that legislators “don’t care about education. They’re paying their political buddies, giving them all these breaks at the expense of our people, teachers, police officers, medical personnel, and our children, ultimately. They don’t care about us as long as they’re getting their kickbacks.”
She said legislators know that “if they don’t educate us, then we won’t be able to stand up when they do things not in our best interests. We don’t have a democracy; our businesses are ruining our country.”
She added, “We need to invest more in our education, not less, and find ways to diversify our economy so that people do have jobs and means to support themselves. We can’t be dedicated to the same sorts of things. I don’t know the final answer, but we are smart enough in this country to find the ways, and the only way we can find the ways is to educate our people.”
Though the teachers are unionized, neither they nor other public employees in West Virginia have collective bargaining rights, so they are potentially facing the loss of their jobs for striking and even jail. That they are taking this kind of risk shows their devotion to the children. Their stance means something for the whole country.