West Virginia Teachers’ Triumph Offers Fresh Hope For US Workers’ Rights

 Teachers and supportters outside the West Virginia capitol in Charleston. On Tuesday, the governor granted all public employees a 5% pay rise. Photograph: Tyler Evert/AP
Teachers and supportters outside the West Virginia capitol in Charleston. On Tuesday, the governor granted all public employees a 5% pay rise. Photograph: Tyler Evert/AP

Teachers celebrated their 5% pay rise after concluding their nine-day strike – and said their success gave them a new sense of political power

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “West Virginia teachers’ triumph offers fresh hope for US workers’ rights” was written by Mike Elk in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 7th March 2018 14.54 UTC

West Virginia teachers expressed joy on Wednesday as officials settled a historic nine-day strike to conclude the first statewide work stoppage since 1990.

Outside her local union’s party at the Cozumel Mexican restaurant in Ripley, Adena Barnette, the 36-year-old president of Jackson County Education, said: “It means that I get to stay in West Virginia. “I am a single teacher, and it was getting to the point where I was afraid that I was going to have to move away if these things weren’t corrected.”

Barnette said she hoped the teachers’ success would help restore West Virginia’s place in American labor history. The state was once one of the strongholds of organized labor.

Barnette was in third grade when the state’s teachers last went on strike. “The seeds of what they did in 1990 were planted in me and they just came to bloom,” she said.

On Tuesday, Governor Jim Justice passed a law granting all public employees – not just teachers – a 5% across-the-board raise. This raise will probably halt talk among public employee unions about striking, as the legislation initially proposed had public employees slated for smaller raises than the teachers.

But the money for the raises will come from cuts to other areas of the budget – including potential reductions to Medicaid – rather than taxes on fracking companies, as the union and its allies preferred.

Governor Justice, however, vowed to veto any bills that would fund charter schools, strip teachers of their seniority, or reduce or remove the deduction of union dues from their paychecks – even if those dues are applied to political work.

The deal will also freeze all out-of-pocket healthcare costs under the WV Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA). A taskforce composed of some union representatives will then convene to present a long-term solution to fixing PEIA.

Many teachers were disappointed that a long-term fix to PEIA was not paid for by increased taxes on the natural gas industry, which has come to dominate the local economy.

“We’re happy, but it’s a mixed emotions kind of happy,” said Kim Martin, a shop steward at Triadelphia middle school in Wheeling. “We’ve made sacrifices and won some victories but we have to stay vigilant in the future.”

With the taskforce expected to present its report in October, the union hopes to shine a spotlight right before the November election upon state legislators blocking long-term reforms to the state’s health insurance plan.

“This isn’t the end of the battle, because teachers are still not paid well enough and they still don’t have enough resources,” said the American Federation of Teachers president, Randi Weingarten. “But in West Virginia, lawmakers were put on notice that they needed to act in the best interests of kids and workers, not for special interests. And if they didn’t learn that lesson through this strike, workers will make sure they learn it in November.”

Students reunite after the stoppage that caused schools to close.
Students reunite after the stoppage that caused schools to close. Photograph: Robert Ray/AP

Many teachers interviewed by the Guardian said the public support they received during the strike gave them a new sense of political power – a power they intend to use.

Barnette said: “I think the righteousness of the cause led people to continue to support us, and I believe teachers have learned that they can no longer be passive when it comes to politics.”

The strike is also likely to have a positive effect on the morale of teachers in other states who are fighting cuts driven by legislators’ unpopular austerity plans.

Last week, teachers in nearby Pittsburgh, which shares a media market with much of West Virginia, voted to strike within 96 hours unless their demands were met. Administrators in Pittsburgh conceded to the union and within two days signed a new contract that met most of the teachers’ demands.

In Oklahoma, teachers earning even less than their West Virginia colleagues announced that they have been in communication as they plan a similar statewide walkout.

A recent survey by the Oklahoma Education Association of its 10,000 members found that 80% of them supported a strike.

“A school closure is a last resort, but we are preparing for such an event in case the legislature refuses to show bold leadership and act,” the Oklahoma Education Association president, Alicia Priest, told the Oklahoman.

In an era in which labor is facing serious attacks from the US supreme court and Republican-controlled legislatures, many veterans of the movement say the victory in West Virginia has given workers the spark to keep fighting.

“West Virginia has a long history of labor activism – where right often met might. Today, right beat might in the truest tradition of Mother Jones,” said Weingarten.

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