West Virginia teachers stage walkouts and protests over pay, health care

Progressive activism is alive and well in Appalachia.

Charleston, WV. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Charleston, WV. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Teachers from southern West Virginia are staging protests over staggering health insurance premiums and negligible pay raises, amid growing resentment toward the state government and ongoing disparity across Appalachia.

Schools in a number of counties, including Logan, Mingo, and Wyoming, are closed on Friday as teachers travel to the Capitol to express anger and frustration over repeated blows to public education in West Virginia. The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that the walk-outs came after a series of votes in those counties.

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“This shows the anger that is out there,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, or WVEA. “It’s not a new anger — it’s built up, for years.”

Both the WVEA and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have discussed possible strikes or walkouts over the course of the past week. Several complaints lie at the heart of the rancor, including increases to West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) health premiums and deductibles, which have hit teachers hard. Low pay is another issue. Teachers in West Virginia earn $45,622 on average annually — 48th in the nation.

Frustration over pay disparity has risen since the introduction of Senate Bill 267, which would increase teacher salaries (along with those of school service personnel and state police) by approximately 1 percent. Teachers say that’s nowhere near enough.

“That won’t even let [teachers] break even — 1 percent is not enough,” said Christine Campbell, president of the AFT’s West Virginia arm.

West Virginia is the second poorest state in the country (after Mississippi) and Appalachia more broadly is among the poorest regions in the United States. Much of that inequality is rooted in both low pay and unemployment. President Trump’s 2016 campaign largely touted bringing jobs back to the region and bolstering quality of life for Appalachians. That hasn’t happened. While the region’s out-of-work coal miners — those who were arguably promised the most by Trump — have received the bulk of media coverage, struggling teachers are also prepared to fight back.

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That’s scaring politicians. Amid threats of rallies and protests, West Virginia Senate Democrats have sought to strike a compromise, proposing two amendments to the pay raise bill. Party members have proposed giving teachers a 3 percent raise overall.

“We’ve felt compelled to work with the governor over the past two years,” State Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso (D) said. “He proposed a 2 percent pay raise last year, and 1 percent this year, so we combined the two.”

“When we look at what the one percent that the governor has proposed over five years — let’s take one percent a year,” he said. “When you break it down, teachers take home pay is, what, [an additional] $34 a month? You can’t hardly see that in a pay stub. But yet their PEIA premiums have gone up approximately $48 a month. That doesn’t wash up.”

West Virginia GOP lawmakers disagree, arguing that the entire state is suffering from a worker shortage and teachers alone should not be a priority.

“This is a state that is struggling from lack of professionals. And we are trying to fix a problem that wasn’t created in one day or one year. And the solution is not just money,” said Sen. Patricia Rucker (R), a former educator. “I wish that we could just pay teachers right now the amount that I would consider worthwhile, which is an even larger amount than what [Senator Prezioso] has proposed with this amendment. But, the fact remains that we have to balance the needs of all of our constituents and all of our citizens.”

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Teachers supported Prezioso’s proposal, but the measure failed on Thursday. That was enough for educators in West Virginia’s southern counties, who formally announced they would be protesting and lobbying for legislation addressing their demands.

“I know they’re still up there trying to work out a deal but it’s still not enough,” Brandon Wolford, president of Mingo County’s WVEA chapter, told the Gazette-Mail. “We want higher wages, we want PEIA fully funded, and we want all the bills considering elimination of seniority stopped.”

“There is a will for this, and there has been a movement — we need to be heard,” said the AFT’s Campbell.

Educators aren’t alone. At one school, at least 30 students reportedly held up signs in support of their teachers while standing in the building parking lot. “FIX PEIA,” read one.

The movement is likely to go statewide. Similar votes and actions are expected in other counties throughout West Virginia in coming weeks. Advocates say they believe the rest of the state will likely follow the southern counties. Heather DeLuca-Nestor, president of Monongalia County’s chapter of the WVEA, told the Gazette-Mail that teachers in Monongalia County — which is in the northern part of the state — would not be walking out Friday, but would wear purple in solidarity and plan to vote to join their counterparts soon.

“We’d like to see this as a statewide movement,” DeLuca-Nestor said. “We support them wholly, but I want to make sure our numbers are protected. As a statewide movement, we have safety in numbers.”