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West Virginia teachers are on the brink of their first statewide strike in nearly 30 years

West Virginia teachers want better salaries.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

West Virginia teachers could stage a statewide strike for the first time in nearly 30 years. This week, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)-West Virginia and West Virginia Education Association announced that teachers authorized a statewide strike. Teachers said they want better salaries and benefits. Vacancies and issues with the state’s insurance provider are also a source of concern for teachers.

The West Virginia House of Delegates passed a salary increase for teachers and school service personnel on Tuesday, which provides a 2 percent raise for teachers next year and 1 percent each of the following three years. Next, it goes to the Senate. But teachers do not appear satisfied with this raise. Earlier this month, the Senate approved annual pay raises of 1 percent or about $400 a year, which many teachers balked at. Insurance premiums are also scheduled to increase on July 1.

Evin Pearson, who teaches fourth grade, said at a Spring Valley High School rally on low teacher pay, “I feel like we’re getting a raise just to have to pay more. I don’t feel like that’s fair.”

Christine Campbell, president of AFT-West Virginia, released a statement on Wednesday. Campbell said teachers and service personnel “have reached their breaking point.”

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Campbell said of the meeting to authorize a strike, “Leaders from all across West Virginia—some driving as much as four hours to attend the meeting—made it clear that teachers and service personnel are appalled by the lack of attention that legislators are paying to education priorities.”

She added, “Our members want to see movement in a positive direction—not a negative direction—period. For far too long, our members and the students they serve have suffered because qualified, experienced teachers are leaving the state in search of adequate pay and benefits elsewhere.”

On Saturday at 1 p.m., teachers, school staff, and community members plan to rally at the state capitol grounds in Charleston to urge lawmakers to support a “decent” compensation and benefits package for educators. Executive vice president of the National Education Association, Becky Pringle, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, Mary Cathryn Ricker, and the heads of the West Virginia AFT and NEA, Christine Campbell and Dale Lee, will be at the rally. Communications Workers of America President Elaine Harris is also attending the rally to show support for West Virginia teachers.

According to a 2016 Learning Policy Institute (LPI) report, the average starting salary in West Virginia in 2013 was $32,533. (For comparison, the lowest starting salary for teachers is in Montana at $27,274.) According to the NEA, the average salary for a West Virginia teacher in 2016 was $45,622, which ranked 48th among all states. In 2014, 3.45 percent of the state’s teachers weren’t certified and 10.5 percent were inexperienced, according to the LPI report.

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The last time West Virginia teachers striked was in March of 1990. It lasted 11 days and involved 47 of the state’s 55 counties, according to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. The main issue then was the same as it is now: low salaries. Average teacher pay was $21,904 then, which was only higher than Mississippi. In 1990, the West Virginia Education Association said the state’s 5 percent raise in February wasn’t enough and said no to the state’s additional 5 percent raise offer, according to the New York Times. The governor at the time, Gaston Caperton (D), said he wouldn’t hold meetings with teachers until ”calm and reason are restored and the teaching force returns to the classrooms.” Teachers union leaders and House and Senate leaders reached a settlement eventually, however, and the governor approved of improvements in teacher pay.

The 1990 strike was illegal then and still would be illegal for teachers in West Virginia today. The West Virginia attorney general at the time, Roger Tompkins, said, “There is no right to strike against the state” and Caperton threatened legal action. He did not act on those threats. A 2014 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that 36 states didn’t allow teachers to go on strike. But that doesn’t always stop them. In 2016, Detroit teachers went on strike by calling in sick to work, despite those strikes being illegal in Michigan.

John F. Lyons, a historian, said that between 1960 and 1974, there were more than 1,000 teachers strikes involving more than 823,000 teachers and that collective-bargaining agreements covered the majority of public school teachers by the end of the ’70s. These public sector union strikes continued into the ’70s and ’80s but after the 1981 PATCO strike, things changed when President Ronald Reagan fired thousands of air traffic controllers who went on strike. This action excited opponents of these unions and soon, school boards wanted more concessions from teachers. Then public sector union membership growth leveled off, according to the Labor and Working Class History Association. Last year, there were only seven strikes that involved 1,000 or more workers, compared to 15 in 2016, making it the second lowest year for large-scale strikes since the Labor Department started keeping track in 1947.