West Virginia education strike continues

By Otis Grotewohl
February 26, 2018

Rally at state capitol in Charleston, Feb. 26.

Charleston, W.Va., Feb. 26 — Tens of thousands of teachers and service personnel in West Virginia braved rainy weather and carried out what is the first successful statewide teachers’ strike there in U.S. labor history on Feb. 22 and 23. Education employees in all 55 counties forced superintendents of education to close schools on those days.

The strike continued throughout the state on Monday, Feb. 26, with thousands rallying at the state Capitol in Charleston, and reports indicate that a fourth day of the walkout will happen on Feb. 27.

This action followed a union rally on Feb. 17 and a directive from state leaders of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association. (“Statewide education strike looms in West Virginia,” Workers World, Feb. 20)

Striking educators and school support staff packed the hallways of the state Capitol in Charleston on Thursday and Friday, uniting on such chants as “Fired up, fed up!” and “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” Others set up picket lines at their schools throughout the whole state.

Both AFT National President Randi Weingarten and NEA Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss came to Charleston on Feb. 22 and walked picket lines throughout Kanawha County. The next day, state leaders of the three unions issued a joint statement at a press conference in Charleston where they declared their members would continue to stay out on Monday, Feb. 26, since there was little movement by the Republican-led legislature.

In response to the educators’ strong mobilization, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has publicly announced that a state injunction would be sent to union leaders. Strikes and work stoppages are illegal for education and state employees in West Virginia. This reveals the action as even more defiant when compared to other legal teacher strikes. Eyewitnesses reported to Workers World on Feb. 22: “Morrisey’s staff placed a mounted, stuffed bear in front of his office to avoid the angry crowd.”

What is at stake

West Virginia teachers rank 48th in pay in the U.S. Additionally, all public and state employees, including teachers and service personnel, are now facing out-of-pocket increased costs in health insurance coverage through the Public Employee Insurance Agency. Unfortunately for education and state workers, PEIA has not been fully funded since 2011, which has led to higher premiums and deductibles for recipients since that time.

As one 21-year veteran junior high teacher told Workers World, “I didn’t become a teacher in this state for the money, but at one time, the insurance seemed like an incentive to stay here and teach.” The state’s legislature was majority Democrat in 2011, with Republicans taking control of the House and Senate in 2014. But state workers view both capitalist parties as being negligent when it comes to fixing PEIA.

The right-wing-led legislature introduced bills advocated by the billionaire Koch brothers, such as “a payroll deception bill,” misnamed “payroll protection,” which would stop union dues from being deducted from members’ checks. The bill was introduced in deliberate retaliation for the first round of teacher walkouts on Feb. 2. The Koch Family Foundation funds a number of anti-worker initiatives throughout the U.S.

Another bill that has shaken people up would eliminate seniority rights, which would allow blatant discrimination and favoritism practices by the state. Seniority was won through previous historic union battles.

Since 2009, the West Virginia Legislature has been pushing for-profit charter schools. The education unions have been successful in defeating the charter school bills each year, but new charter school bills have reared their ugly heads in this session as well.  On Feb. 22, the legislature took education off their agenda, which was a victory, since that delays moving forward on the anti-worker seniority bill and the charter school bill.

For the last several years, working-class and oppressed people in West Virginia have faced an onslaught of reactionary bills, from passage of the “right to work for less” bill in 2016 to racist voter ID laws to many anti-choice bills further restricting access to abortion.

At the beginning of the West Virginia legislative session in mid-January, a bill was introduced to require all schools to provide an elective course on the Bible. Fortunately, that bill is not currently moving ahead.

Racist governor and Big Oil

In addition to the reactionary legislature, the workers in motion are taking aim at the major oil and gas companies that have been fracking in the state for several years and stealing from citizens long before that.

Earlier this month, Lissa Lucas, a Democratic House of Delegates candidate, was physically removed from the Capitol building for the “crime” of listing the oil and gas companies that donate money to legislators. Lucas’ courageous action was in response to a bill, sponsored by Big Oil, that would allow companies to drill on landowners’ property without their consent. (Newsweek, Feb. 11)

While Lucas is a candidate for the capitalist Democratic Party, even she was not immune from being dragged out of the House chambers for voicing criticism of Big Oil and its puppet politicians.

Gov. Jim Justice is the richest person in West Virginia. He owns several non-union mines and has ties to Big Oil and Big Coal. Justice prides himself on being a personal friend of Trump and, like the bigot in chief, is not shy about openly expressing white supremacist views.

At a Town Hall meeting in early February, teachers raised the idea of increasing a severance tax on oil and gas to help pay for a salary increase for education workers. The racist billionaire governor responded by saying, “There’s not a Chinaman’s chance.” (wowktv.com, Feb. 6)

The banking industry is also ripping off the workers in West Virginia.  Research from the state’s 2018 Executive Budget Report states: “The percentage of each citizen’s income allocated to payment of state debt to the banks and financial institutions is 2.8% or $1,020 per citizen.”

Jerry Goldberg, an anti-foreclosure organizer with the Moratorium NOW! Coalition in Detroit  and a veteran activist who has stood up to the banks throughout the country, commented to Workers World: “The debt owed by the average worker in West Virginia is much higher than that in most of the other states. Therefore, there are huge profits being made.” What is more concerning is the average salary in West Virginia is $23,000, which is poverty level.  Meanwhile, the average teacher’s salary is only $44,701. (pbsnewshour, Feb. 23)

Struggle spills over to other sectors

Inspired by the militant fight waged by education workers, state and public employees staged a rally at the Capitol building in Charleston on Feb. 19, organized by United Electrical Workers Local 170.  On Feb. 23, nurses and hospital workers in Welch conducted a walk-in. These workers also have PEIA coverage and receive low pay. Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania only 40 miles from the northern panhandle of West Virginia, also seems to be on the verge of a teachers’ strike.

While education and state workers initially directed their anger at the racist, billionaire governor and the arch-reactionary legislature, they are now taking aim at Big Oil and the banks. It is becoming more clear by the day that capitalism has nothing to offer workers and oppressed people throughout the world. Only a socialist system can guarantee a society that provides basic necessities for human survival.