Mar 19, 2018
Over 20,000 West Virginia public school teachers and 13,000 school employees will get 5 percent raises, starting in July of 2018. How did this happen?
A strike that started in a few southern coal mining counties caught fire. It was joined by other workers and became a state-wide strike. Every public school in West Virginia was closed for 9 days.
In this state where public employees have no collective bargaining rights, over 30,000 people “bargained” by not going to work. They gathered by the thousands each day at the state capitol and decided together when they would go back to work.
Rank and file teachers made sure their strike was well organized. When union officials announced a tentative “deal” with the governor, teachers organized themselves to not go back to work. They had no trust in the politicians and wanted everything in writing.
Many teachers had not wanted to strike, but when it became clear that state officials were tone deaf to their concerns, teachers faced reality. They realized – almost in unison – that they needed to go “All-In or Nothing.”
In one of the poorest states in the U.S., teachers needed to lessen the impact of their strike on children. They reached out in their communities. They planned for alternative child care. They planned for free food to be delivered to kids’ homes to make up for missed school lunches. Being organized ahead of time helped this strike to have widespread support, including from community groups and churches.
Each day of the strike, bus drivers, cooks and teachers massed at the state capitol in the thousands. They made a lot of noise. Feeling the power of being together strengthened their resolve.
The strike started over a “raise” that would have left them further behind when healthcare costs were factored in. In the end, they did not win better healthcare. Healthcare costs are “frozen” for a year.
Certainly the West Virginia teachers and state employees deserve more. But they came out ahead for the experience they gained of how to fight. And they understood that their fight needs to spread.
On the day they won 5 percent raises, thousands of strikers left the capitol shouting: “West Virginia first, Oklahoma next!” West Virginia workers hope to hand off the strike torch to teachers in Oklahoma, where teachers were discussing whether to strike.