The West Virginia teachers strike ended on Wednesday after the governor and the leaders of the House and Senate reached a deal on its ninth school day. It lasted longer than the 1990 statewide teachers strike.
West Virginia teachers, whose pay ranks 48th in the country by some estimates and who have gone without pay raises for several years, secured a 5 percent raise. That 5 percent raise also extended to all state employees.
Renita Benson, a remedial reading teacher, told the New York Times on Tuesday, “It’s not the raise, as much as it is having the respect that we deserve from the government, and I think that was proven today.”
But how did lawmakers agree to pay for the raise? Just last week, a bill that was more limited in scope — offering a 5 percent incremental raise to teachers alone — failed to make it through the state legislature.
In this legislative fix, teachers’ raises aren’t paid for by new revenue (as the earlier bill had proposed), but by a series of cuts to different agencies. A $46 million spending increase for the Division of Commerce and Department of Tourism was put on hold, according to WV Metro News. A bill supporting community and technical college students that would have subsidized tuition for some students also won’t move forward. That would have cost $7 million.
Eighteen million dollars that would have been used for maintenance on public properties that has been deferred will stay deferred. The remaining funding comes from the lottery surplus, from the general fund, from the $12 million that would have gone from the general fund to a highway fund, and $13.5 million for paying down debt in the state’s workers compensation fund, according to WV Metro News.
These are the tentative estimates, according to a list the Senate’s communication director provided to WVNews. Lawmakers plan on finalizing the budget this week.
Although some lawmakers mentioned paying for the raise through cuts to Medicaid, Gov. Justice said of Medicaid funding on Tuesday, “There’s not a chance on the planet that’s what we’d cut.” But according to West Virginia Gazette Mail, “He later said it might be necessary to cut the $720 million appropriation for Medicaid by no more than $10 million, funding he said could be restored in the course of the budget year, if his increased revenue projections are accurate.”
Now that teachers have returned to school, there is the question of how they will make up for lost instructional time. Gov. Jim Justice said that students should not have to attend school later in June and that school systems “need to return some sense of normalcy to the education process.”
School Superintendent Steve Paine said that he will start working with the State Board of Education to “explore all possible avenues” to making up that time without causing disruptions for students and their families.
The accomplishments of the West Virginia teachers strike stretched beyond state employees, however. The strike provided encouragement to teachers who were already considering strikes and other labor actions in their states. Arizona teachers are wearing red on Wednesday to protest the state’s low teacher pay, according to AZCentral.com. This is reportedly the “first step” for organizers who are considering other actions to get lawmakers’ attention. The Arizona Educators United Facebook page hosted a conversation about a potential strike.
Oklahoma teachers are also considering walkouts and school closures followed by a rally at the capitol due to a lack of investment in education funding and low teacher salaries. President of the Oklahoma Education Association Alicia Priest told ThinkProgress on Monday, “It gives them the thought that it’s something they can do as well and that strengthens their position and resolve.” Kentucky teachers are concerned about their retirement benefits and may resort to a strike, according to WCHSTV.
West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona are all “right-to-work” states. This means that workers in unionized workplaces don’t have to join a union or pay for the cost of union representation but usually reap the same benefits as those who do. Right now, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), where a public sector employee claims his first amendment rights have been violated because he has to pay fair share fees even though he is not a union member.
It is likely that the court will rule in favor of the employee, Mark Janus, which would affect the 22 states that don’t have these laws. But this could be a problem for conservatives, some labor experts argue, because for unions to compete for dues-paying members, they have to deliver results, and may become more militant in nature. The Illinois Solicitor General warned the U.S. Supreme Court last week that “when unions are deprived of agency fees, they tend to become more militant, more confrontational.” The West Virginia strike may be a sign of what to expect in a post-Janus world.