“People Have Just Had Enough”: West Virginia Teachers Continue Historic Strike into Eighth Day

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Schools across West Virginia are closed for an eighth day, as more than 20,000 teachers and 13,000 school staffers remain on strike demanding higher wages and better healthcare. The strike, which began on February 22, has shut down every public school in the state. Teachers are demanding a 5 percent raise and a cap on spiraling healthcare costs. For more, we speak with Jay O’Neal, a middle school teacher and a union activist in Charleston, West Virginia. And we speak with Mike Elk, senior labor reporter at Payday Report. His most recent piece is titled “West Virginia Teachers’ Strike Fever Starting to Spread to Other States.”

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Schools across West Virginia are closed for an eighth day, as more than 20,000 teachers and 13,000 school staffers remain on strike demanding higher wages and better healthcare. The walkout, which began on February 22nd, has shut down every public school in the state across 55 counties. It’s the largest walkout strike in years. Teachers are demanding a 5 percent raise and a cap on spiraling healthcare costs. Over a week, teachers have been rallying outside the state Capitol in Charleston, urging lawmakers to approve a pay raise, but the state Senate and House have failed to come to an agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Bernie Sanders praised the striking teachers over the weekend, tweeting, “100 years ago West Virginia coal miners helped lead the struggle for fair wages and dignity on the job. Today, the teachers of West Virginia are carrying on that brave tradition. I stand with them in their fight for justice and dignity.”

We’re joined now by two guests. Jay O’Neal is a middle school teacher, a union activist in Charleston, West Virginia. Mike Elk is senior labor reporter at Payday Report. He also writes for The Guardian. Elk has been covering the West Virginia teachers’ strike extensively. His most recent piece is headlined “West Virginia Teachers’ Strike Fever Starting to Spread to Other States.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jay O’Neal, let’s begin with you in Charleston, West Virginia. Why don’t you lay out the scene right now, why teachers and staff have been on strike for eight days?

JAY O’NEAL: Good morning. Yes, we’ve been on strike for eight days. This goes back years. Starting salaries for teachers here with a bachelor’s is about $33,000. And the biggest root issue of everything is our insurance. The acronym is PEIA. It stands for Public Employees Insurance Agency. And basically, our state government has not been funding it adequately for years. And so, every year there are new cuts. There’s public hearings every November, and they basically tell you how much worse the insurance is going to get. This year they proposed moving to something called Total Family Income, and so basing our premiums on the income of everyone in our family. So, for instance, my spouse has another job and works, and so they would base not just on my income, but on her income, as well, which meant my premium was going to double. And there’s a lot of teachers who both of them, you know, work in the school system, and they were going to see their premiums double, too. And I think people have just had enough, and they’ve decided they’re not listening to us when we try to lobby, when we try to call, and so we’ve got to do something big. We’ve got to walk out to get them to listen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Jay O’Neal, this is a wildcat strike. Could you talk about the laws in terms of striking in West Virginia and the role of the union leaders, because, as I understand it, there are two teachers’ unions that represent different portions of the workforce in West Virginia?

JAY O’NEAL: Sure. We don’t have collective bargaining here for teachers, and so teachers don’t have to join a union. We have two unions: the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers in West Virginia. But at any given school, you might have teachers who are a member of one or the other or neither. And so, without having collective bargaining, we actually don’t have the right to strike as public employees. But people just felt like they didn’t have any other option. In West Virginia right now, we have over 700 unfilled vacancies, as far as teaching positions. And so, I think we thought, “I mean, really, who are they going to replace us with?” At this point, we don’t feel like we have a lot of other options.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, in the absence of an organized effort by the unions, how were you able to pull everyone out across the entire state? How did that happen?

JAY O’NEAL: Sure. So, a lot of organizing early on happened on Facebook. People connected over this grievance with the insurance. And as things began to build and develop, some of the southern counties, which historically is where kind of our labor militancy has happened, decided that they were going to do a 1-day walkout, and I think that really spurred the rest of the counties on. You know, we watched it. Some of it was live-streamed up here at the capital. We watched it, and it kind of motivated the rest of us to say, you know, “We want to take a step. We want to make an impact like they have, too.”

And so, the unions did come together and kind of call for a statewide walkout, I believe on February 22nd. And where this thing turned wildcat was, they basically had met with the governor after the first, I guess, four days of the strike and said, you know, “We’ve got an agreement worked out, a 5 percent pay raise. We’re going to freeze the insurance, and we’re also going to put a task force together to figure out a way to keep the premiums from going up and to try to really fix it.” And I think the teachers, at this point, just were cynical. We’ve seen this happen before with our Legislature and our government. And we said, “You know, we’re staying out 'til we see pen to paper, ’til it's signed and that we know it’s all gone through.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to one of the striking teachers, speaking outside the state Capitol.

STRIKING TEACHER: I don’t think that I know a teacher that does not work a second job, at all. Like every teacher I know has at least two jobs. Some have three. And I know one teacher who has six other jobs.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s bring in Mike Elk, who’s been reporting on this from the beginning and extensively in West Virginia, in general. Mike, put this in the broader context and the politics of West Virginia right now, where the Legislature went back last week on what the agreement was.

MIKE ELK: Well, Amy, you know, I grew up partially in West Virginia. My father worked there as an organizer, trying to organize a plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a GE plant. And I worked there as a union organizer myself after college. As we’ve seen in West Virginia politics, there’s a real history of big mass walkouts of this type to effect large-scale change. It’s something that people remember. It’s something that a lot of these teachers saw their parents’ generation do. In 1969, there was a huge walkout of 40,000 coal miners striking for black lung benefits, a disease that at the time the government was denying them benefits for. So there’s been a history of these successful mass-scale walkouts throughout West Virginia history, going back decades, and it’s something that lives in the political consciousness of that state.

However, what we’re seeing here, we haven’t seen in decades in any state in America, which is really an entire state going out on a wildcat strike. The closest comparison I’ve seen of this was in 2011 during the Wisconsin Capitol occupation, when teachers all over the state went out on strike for two days against the Scott Walker anti-union bill. However, after two days, they went back in. So we’re really in uncharted territories in terms of recent labor history.

And it’s not quite clear when this wildcat is going to end, because right now the state Legislature and the Governor’s Office are trying to pass a bill that would raise pay by 5 percent. Currently, the state Senate passed a bill that would raise pay by only 4 percent. It’s going to go to conference committee today. It’s unclear what will come out of that. However, even if they just pass the pay raises, it’s not clear that teachers will go back in. The main issue and the sticking point has always been fixing the PEIA insurance program, the one that was talked about earlier. Currently, the governor of the state is proposing an increased tax on natural gas to pay for that. However, the Republicans in the state Legislature and their allies in the fossil fuel industry are dead set against an increased tax on natural gas. So this could all be easily fixed if there was just a tax on natural gas. However, it doesn’t appear that the traditional fossil fuel industries in West Virginia want to see that tax go through to end this teachers’ strike.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Mike, you talk about the unchartered waters that we’re in, in terms of the labor movement nationwide, but there’s also the teachers in Oklahoma, are very close to potentially going on strike. Could you talk about the ripple effects, given the fact that teachers across America have been under assault by conservative forces now for years, that this might have, that the West Virginia strike may have?

MIKE ELK: Well, I’m right here in Pittsburgh, which is about 45 minutes from the West Virginia border. We saw last week the effect that West Virginia was having. The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers voted to strike last Monday. By Wednesday—they gave a 96-hour when they voted—notice when they voted to strike. By that Wednesday, the school district had folded and given them everything they wanted. And so, we’re started to see that effect already play out here in Pittsburgh.

In neighboring states to West Virginia, in Kentucky, as well as in southwestern Pennsylvania, there has been talk of striking in districts where the governor, Jim Justice, owes money. Now, the billionaire governor of West Virginia is also one of the largest landowners and coal owners in the state. He owes something like $15 million in taxes in six different states. And there’s been talks, in counties in the neighboring states where he owes money, of striking in solidarity as the ones they sign. Now, it looks like there’s a lot of talk in Oklahoma of striking sometime in early April. This is certainly inspiring a lot of action.

And it’s particularly interesting because it’s coming at the same time as the walkouts over the Parkland massacre. So we’re getting to this period where people really get a sense of walking out. And as the teacher who was talking earlier brought up, social media is really reinforcing this and breaking through the way people talk, because you can see photos, day after a day, day after day, on social media, and it really reinforces this sense, among people that are striking, that they have a lot of support, that they know their neighbors have their backs, because they see their neighbors posting that. And in West Virginia right now, I think the teachers are blown away by how much public support they have. And I don’t think that the governor has moved yet in major ways to seek injunctions against the strike, because he knows it would fire politically.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to an Oklahoma teacher speaking at a recent school board meeting in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

OKLAHOMA TEACHER: One out of five Oklahoma school districts have been forced to adopt a 4-day school week. And a 2017 study from the University of Oklahoma shows that teachers who leave the state, on average, receive a $19,000 pay increase. So, tonight we are especially grateful for a superintendent who is standing up for our teachers and students. We stand alongside our administration, our administrative leadership, in calling for a restoration of proper funding for our public schools. Unless Oklahoma receives a miraculous windfall to fix the problems that we face, the BEA is calling for the suspension of classes so that we may petition our state lawmakers to repair the damage done over the years of fiscal irresponsibility. We did it in 1990, and we’re ready to do it again.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and then come back to the activism that’s taking place in this country, and we’re going to go to Britain, where lecturers are striking across the country. We’ve been speaking with Jay O’Neal, middle school teacher on strike. He’s in Charleston, West Virginia. We’ll continue with him and Mike Elk, who’s writing all about it but also grew up in West Virginia, of Payday Report. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Andra Day and Common singing “Stand Up for Something” from the film Marshall, about the first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall. Common and Andra Day were joined on stage by Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, legendary civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, a Syrian refugee child named Bana al-Abed, Cecile Richards, the head of Planned Parenthood, and others.

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