West Virginia teachers flood the state capitol during statewide strike

Public schools are closed across the state.

Educators ad school staff gather at the state capitol. CREDIT: AFT-WV President Christine Campbell
Educators ad school staff gather at the state capitol. CREDIT: AFT-WV President Christine Campbell

Teachers and other school staff participated in a statewide walkout on Thursday to demand better salaries and health insurance. Educators in all of West Virginia’s 55 counties are involved in the walkout, which will continue on Friday. It’s the first time teachers have staged a statewide strike in nearly 30 years.

On Thursday, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten went to West Virginia to support the work stoppage. Educators gathered at the capitol grounds on Thursday.

Mine workers also joined striking teachers on Thursday.

Mine workers and President Randi Weingarten. (CREDIT: AFT)
Mine workers and President Randi Weingarten. (CREDIT: AFT)

It has been a few years since the state gave an across-the-board raise to teachers and other public employees and with rising insurance premiums, and teachers say they’re financially struggling and seeing more teacher vacancies.

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According to a 2016 Learning Policy Institute (LPI) report, the average starting salary in West Virginia in 2013 was $32,533. According to the National Education Association, the average salary for a West Virginia teacher was $45,622 in 2016, which ranked 48th among all states.

Don Scalise, a government and history teacher at Cabell Midland High School, told HuffPost that health insurance used to be a bright spot for West Virginia teachers, despite the lower salaries.

“In West Virginia, we know they weren’t known for having high salaries, but they were known for good health insurance …That used to be something to attract people. Now that’s eroding,” Scales told HuffPost.

Teachers and school staff strike in West Virginia and talk to Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT. (CREDIT: AFT)
Teachers and school staff strike in West Virginia and talk to Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT. (CREDIT: AFT)

Lucinda Burns, a teacher at Point Harmony Elementary, told WSAZ earlier this month during a protest at the Capitol, “We need our students to have teachers who aren’t worried about a second job. We need our teachers to be free to be able to go to the grocery store and buy what’s needed. Not only for ourselves but for our students.”

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On Wednesday, the state senate announced that it passed a bill that would give teachers a 2 percent raise later this year and 1 percent raise in the next two years. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) announced that he signed it later that day. But teachers are still not pleased, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, because those raises wouldn’t address the increases in insurance premiums and benefit cuts from the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA).

Some of the teachers who walked out on Thursday held signs addressing PEIA. One teacher’s sign read, “I’ve got 99 problems and PIEA is all of them.”

A woman holds a sign near Riverside High School in Kanawha County. West Virginia. (CREDIT: AFT-WV/Facebook)
A woman holds a sign near Riverside High School in Kanawha County. West Virginia. (CREDIT: AFT-WV/Facebook)

Earlier this week, West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board unanimously approved a freeze on the premiums and benefits for the 2018-2019 plan year. AFT-West Virginia President Christine Campbell responded, “A freeze is not a fix” and that “PEIA is not fixed until the Governor and legislative leaders identify a dedicated, sustainable funding stream for the plan.”

The strike follows a rally by teachers, school staff, and community members at the state capitol grounds in Charleston on Saturday.

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The walkout is illegal now, as it was 30 years ago. This week, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said the strike is illegal and said he is ready to “support any county board of education or county superintendent to enforce the law,” according to West Virginia Metro News.

“Let us make no mistake. The impending work stoppage is unlawful. State law and court rulings give specific parties avenues to remedy such illegal conduct, including the option to seek an injunction to end an unlawful strike,” Morrisey said in a released statement.

In 1990, the West Virginia attorney general at the time, Roger Tompkins, said, “There is no right to strike against the state” and West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton (D) threatened legal action but did not act on those threats.