All-In or Nothing’: West Virginia’s Teacher Strike Was Months in the Making - West Virginia Strong

All-In or Nothing’: West Virginia’s Teacher Strike Was Months in the Making

 

By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON and JESS BIDGOOD

GILBERT, W.Va. — Home from a long day teaching English last month at Mingo Central High School, Robin Ellis told her husband the latest talk among the teachers. They were tired of low pay and costly health benefits — and they were mulling a “rolling strike,” in which teachers in a few counties would walk out each day.

“You don’t want to do that,” Donnie Ellis, her husband, said. As a veteran of strip mines and the intense labor conflicts that often came with them, he knew what made some strikes succeed and others crumble.

“It’s got to be all-in or nothing,” he said.

It has definitely been all-in in West Virginia. For seven days now, teachers have refused to work in all 55 counties, shutting down every school in the state.

Every school day since last Thursday, thousands of red- and black-clad teachers, bus drivers and cooks have descended on Charleston to fill the halls of the State Capitol, chanting and singing defiantly in one of the few statewide teachers’ strikes in American history.

On Saturday evening, teachers’ frustration flared again as the Senate passed a bill granting a 4 percent raise, rather than the 5 percent raise that had been part of the deal to get the teachers back to work.

In a statement shortly after the vote, the three unions representing school employees in West Virginia announced that all public schools would be closed on Monday and would “remain closed until the Senate honors the agreement that was made.”

The 5 percent raise was initially announced by Gov. James C. Justice, a Republican, and union leaders said that would be enough to get teachers back to class. But rank-and-file educators have since said they will not return until the full pay raise is guaranteed by legislation. The Republican-controlled House passed it overwhelmingly this week, but Saturday’s amended version of the bill meant educators’ thunderous showdown with the state’s conservative Senate would continue.

For a brief and extraordinarily confusing period late Saturday, it almost seemed as if the strike would come to an end because of a mix-up in the Senate, which initially — and accidentally — passed the bill with the 5 percent raise. Procedural wrangling followed for the next hour before the Senate voted to pass the 4 percent raise.

The bill then went back to the House, which voted not to concur with the Senate’s version. The two versions will now go to a committee tasked to work out a compromise. In a statement issued Saturday night, Mr. Justice reiterated his support for the 5 percent raise and urged a quick end to the standoff.

“This wrangling needs to stop right now,” he said. “For crying out loud, we are putting our children at risk.”

Frustration at the state of pay and health insurance — in addition to proposed changes to rules governing hiring, firing and the payment of union dues — had been building for a while.

Smaller walkouts began in early February, organized by the sons and daughters of coal miners who had stood on the picket lines themselves.

“When I was in diapers, he was involved in a mine strike,” Justin Endicott, 34, a fourth-grade teacher in Mingo County, said of his father.

“Southern West Virginia’s often forgotten, and if we were not loud, we would be completely forgotten,” said Mr. Endicott, who traveled to Charleston on Feb. 2 with teachers from neighboring counties to take part in the first of the school walkouts.

It is not a surprise to anyone here that the first teacher strikes came out of coal country. This was the battlefield of the mine wars, a series of deadly battles in the early 20th century between coal miners and armies of law enforcement and company-hired soldiers. Among the people who fought in these wars was the great-grandfather of Brandon Wolford, a major organizer of the strikers in Mingo County.

In 1920, thousands of miners faced off in the five-day Battle of Blair Mountain against armed strikebreakers and government forces in one of the largest labor uprisings in American history.

“I think it’s part of the culture,” said David Haney, the executive director of the West Virginia Education Association. “They grew up in a culture of understanding people standing up to their employers to some degree when things go wrong.”

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