Can We Get As Many Interviews With West Virginia’s Striking Teachers As We Did With West Virginia’s Trump Voters?
The three public teachers’ unions in West Virginia—the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers West Virginia, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association—have banded together to go on strike. They started striking on Thursday, and they recently announced that the strike will continue through Monday. According to CNN, every single public school in all 55 of the state’s counties was closed on Friday.
The teachers’ demands are multi-fold. First, there is the issue of pay. West Virginia ranks 48th out of 50 states for teacher pay, according to the Associated Press, with NEA-estimated starting salaries of $32,435 and average salaries of $44,701. On Wednesday night, Governor Jim Justice signed a 2% pay raise into law, with 1% pay increases scheduled for 2020 and 2021. However, teachers argue this will be hardly be enough to cover their rising healthcare costs.
West Virginia’s Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) is responsible for administering health care for all the state public’s workers. Though the state government recently agreed to “freeze” premiums and deductibles for one year, teachers says their premiums and deductibles have been steadily increasing over the past few years, and they want a real fix, not a freeze. Last Monday, PEIA Director Ted Cheatham said that the program needs about $50-70 million more per year in order to keep functioning at current levels. It simply needs more revenue.
As Kym Randolph, the director of communication for the West Virginia Education Association, told The Washington Post, “This is a cumulative strike. I mean, the pay and the benefits have been problems for years, and there’s constantly been the promises of, ‘We’ll take care of this, we’ll take care of this.’ It’s finally gotten to the point where, you know, the promises aren’t enough.”
Perhaps the most significant part of this teacher strike is that West Virginia does not recognize the rights of public employees to strike. As Al Jazeera notes, “it is illegal under West Virginia law for public employees to go on strike, and teachers risk fines or imprisonment by continuing the walkout.” But they are striking anyways. And in the midst of the strike, they’re also reportedly finding time to provide free food for those students who rely on school meals to eat, so that their students don’t have to go hungry during their strike.
“Of course we’re going to do this,” said fifth-grade teacher Mandy Edwards. “Teachers at every school need to make sure our kids are OK, all the time. This is part of that. Our caring about them does not end and begin with the hours they’re in school … Even though we’re trying to get the attention of the Legislature, we care about our kids. Even though we want our voices to be heard, we know what they need and are going to do everything we can to help them during this. We will always care.”
“Real America,” “rural America,” and “hard-scrabble America” aren’t just gas stations full of Trump voters. They’re also full of dedicated labor activists. Public sector employees who want fair pay. Students who deserve the same quality education, with all the money for music teachers and arts programs and sports, as their peers in wealthier states and zip codes.
West Virginia hasn’t seen a strike like this in decades. So let’s hear what they have to say.
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