The West Virginia Teachers Strike & Us

West Virginia Teachers Strike - Photo by WVEA

Photo credit: WVEA

In a State Dominated by Fossil Fuel Interests, Labor Scored a Huge Victory

West Virginia teachers and services employees recently stood strong to demand lower health care costs and higher pay. Through a statewide walkout that closed public schools in all 55 West Virginia counties for nine days, these employees won not just for themselves but for all West Virginia public employees. Their action resulted in a 5% pay raise for all state employees, plus a freeze on premium costs from the state-run Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), a task force to solve funding problems for PEIA, and the dropping of legislation that would have left good workers with the least seniority the most vulnerable to cutbacks.

The West Virginia teachers not only won gains for themselves; they sparked new life into labor organizing. Jersey City teachers and school employees, who had been in a dispute over health care for eight months, went on strike on Friday, March 16th, and saw their demands met by Sunday with a tentative contract agreement. Oklahoma teachers, the third lowest-paid teachers in the U.S., have issued an ultimatum that will see them go on strike April 2nd if their demands aren’t met. Teachers across Arizona and Kentucky have been organizing walk-ins, rallies, and #RedforEd, which will serve as the lead-ups to a strike if their state legislatures continue to ignore them.

It feels good to see people standing up for themselves, and it feels especially good to see such solidarity over this important labor issue, especially at a time when public sector unions are under heavy attack both nationally, with the Janus v AFSCME case the Supreme Court is currently hearing, and locally, as with Tennessee Governor Haslam’s recent attempts to outsource state facilities maintenance work to private companies.

School Workers Understood the Bigger Picture

Not only did teachers and support personnel across all 55 counties in West Virginia stand strong together throughout this action, they also made sure the children they’re responsible for were taken care of during the walk out. Many of these workers coordinated with local food banks and reached into their own pockets to make sure that kids who relied on free school lunches still got to eat. They loaded up buses to take food to the homes of kids whose parents couldn’t get to the food banks. They worked with churches and other community organizations to provide places for kids to go during the walk-out, so that parents—many of whom are low-income themselves—wouldn’t have to call out of work and lose days of pay.

The actions of these teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, secretaries, school nurses, superintendents, and community organizations really showed who prioritizes children and education—just as the state legislature’s actions have shown who prioritizes corporate profits over the well-being of the people of West Virginia. The lesson is clear here: labor and community are neither separate nor separable. When unions recognize and act upon that, when they show how the labor movement benefits the whole community, they win the kind of support that makes the difference between victory and defeat.

How the West Virginia Situation Got to the Point It Did

At the start of the strike, West Virginia ranked 48th in the nation for teacher pay. The children of West Virginia often lost good teachers to higher-paying districts across state lines—something Washington County teachers and parents can relate to. West Virginia teachers, just like Washington County teachers, love their jobs and they love where they live. But teachers cannot do their jobs, and do them to the best of their abilities, when they must take on second and third jobs to make ends meet. We cannot make education a priority without making educators a priority.

A decade of cutting taxes on businesses and moving the burden to working people in West Virginia created the situation that drove teachers to the capitol this month. West Virginia’s legislative decisions have resulted in $425 million less revenue each year. By 2016, the state founds itself in a $353 million budget hole. And rather than raising taxes at that time, they made West Virginians further tighten their belts.

Tennessee On a Similar Trajectory

When Tennessee’s Hall Tax—a tax on passive income derived from dividends—is fully phased-out in 2021, Tennessee will lose $200 million in revenue a year, putting us halfway to West Virginia in terms of giveaways to the top. Those who will most benefit from the phase-out are the already well-off. Just 3 percent of Tennessee’s households pay any Hall Tax at all. Hardest hit by the phase-out will be those in rural areas who rely on services—including public education—that are at least partly funded by Hall Tax revenue shared by the state.

In 2017, Washington County received nearly $270,000 from Hall Tax revenue1. With the phase-out of that tax, Washington County’s budget will become even tighter. Washington County already pays its teachers $12,000 less than Johnson City schools. As a result, the county is already struggling to attract and retain good teachers.

Our state legislators, meanwhile, including our own House District 6 representative, Micah Van Huss, are attempting to make it unconstitutional to reinstate the Hall Tax. That is just how dedicated our representatives are—to the wealthy and the business interests, not to the everyday people of Tennessee and Washington County.

What We Prioritize Shows What We Value

I oppose enshrining the repeal of the Hall Tax in our state constitution. I oppose even attempting to do so. We have major issues that affect the everyday lives of Tennessee and Washington County residents: wages, sick leave, healthcare, infrastructure, public services, opioid addiction treatment and prevention, and how we’re going to fund these things that our communities so desperately need. That’s what our state representatives should be spending their energy on. That’s what our county commissioners, our school boards, our city commission, our governor, and our federal officials should be spending their energy on—not finding more ways to take money from our children’s’ education and our people’s future to give to the rich.

If you’d like to change what’s being prioritized at the government level, I encourage you to volunteer for my campaign. I’m running to represent the people—not the wealthy interests—of Washington County’s ninth district. We need help with door-knocking, data entry, research, writing, and more.

You can also donate to my campaign. We’re funded by small, individual donations. We’ve also made a commitment to using only union-printed or labor-donated campaign materials. Right now we’re raising funds for two runs of union-printed door hangers, so that we can make sure every one of the 4000+ households in our district receives an introductory door hanger now and a reminder door hanger closer to the election. We also need to do a small union-shop run of lawn signs, cover the costs of printing walk sheets, make sure our canvassers have pens, clipboards, rain ponchos, water, and snacks, etc.

Finally, simply register to vote (or double-check your registration to make sure it’s still accurate!) and commit to showing up at the polls for the Washington County Commission general election (where I’m on the ballot) along with the state & federal primaries on August 2nd, and again for the state & federal general elections on November 6th.

1. How will local governments work to make up for the death of the Hall tax?, Brandon Paykamian, Johnson City Press, February 11, 2018