The West Virginia Teachers Strike Is a Potential View of the Activist Future

"They're pretty pissed," said my pal Liz down in West Virginia on the phone last night. "And they have every reason to be." She was talking about the public school teachers in her state, who are among the lowest paid in the nation, and the strike they called last Thursday. It's affected the entire state, with schools closed in every district. It is continuing today, with a big rally at the state capitol in Charleston.

This is on the heels of yesterday's rally where the teachers were joined by the head of the United Mine Workers of America, who told the crowd, "I call on every union member in the state of West Virginia — coal miners, steel workers, rubber workers, electrical workers, everybody — stand around these workers." The starting pay for teachers is $33,000 a year. The teachers are taking second jobs to make ends meet.  The salary is less for support staff, like $24,000. If that doesn't enrage you, imagine being the guy who mops up vomit and other messes at a Wheeling elementary school.

And, according to Liz, the people of the state are with the teachers. "I haven't heard anyone say that they're wrong," she said. "People are supportive." Indeed, there have been rumblings of the teachers being joined by other state workers. "We have people working full-time for the state who are on food stamps to survive," Liz explained. She knows some of them personally.

The teachers are striking because, after being given a pay raise of 4 percent over 3 years, they were facing a big hike in their health care premiums and other benefits, one that would not only wipe out the raise, but cost more. In other words, it was a pay cut. Governor Jim Justice got the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board to approve a 1-year freeze on the benefits hike, but the temporary nature of the fix is one of the things that spurred on the strike.

The pay issue is huge because teachers are leaving the state to make a better living. As English teacher Jessica Salfia put it, "I live in a place where I could drive 20 minutes to Washington County, Maryland or Loudoun County, Virginia, and make $20,000 to $25,000 more than I’m making now." There are currently 700 teaching vacancies at West Virginia schools. The pay gap is hurting the education of kids in the state.

Of course, this all comes down to Republican (and, to be fair, some Democratic) hard-ons for tax cuts. Yeah, the legislature and then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin blew a hole in the budget with tax cuts in 2016. The tax cuts, along with an economy that is slowing down because, no matter how many times Donald Trump clicks his heels together, the coal industry is dying, have left West Virginia in such a precarious financial position that Justice actually proposed tax hikes last year. Of course, it didn't happen once ALEC and other conservative asshole groups went after him, and he's not proposing many of them again.

But to end the strike, Justice is for calling a special session of the legislature to address the severance tax on natural gas (that is, a tax on what is extracted from West Virginia and shipped out of state). While coal may be dying, companies come to West Virginia and are making a mint on natural gas.

However, while tax hikes might help solve the problem, the Public Employees Insurance Agency has implemented a program that will charge some people even more for their health care. "Because I have high cholesterol, I'm going to have to pay $500 more in my deductible," said Liz. Her high cholesterol is not diet-related. It's genetic. No matter what she does, she hasn't been able to get it down. And the PEIA is going even further. Teacher Sonya Ashby says, "PEIA wants your blood tests, waistline circumference, FitBit data, gym data and other private information. If you don’t meet their criteria for what’s 'healthy' or choose not to give them your private information, you are penalized with higher deductibles and premiums. This is using financially punitive measures to control the behavior of the employee."

So you're not gonna pay people enough to be able to afford things like healthy food or a gym membership and then you're going to penalize them for being too poor or having a pre-existing condition. And you're going to charge them more for the whole thing. All this is from the political party that's supposedly all about small government. Christ.

Liz is hoping that there is a reawakening of the union spirit in West Virginia. It is where Mother Jones herself was arrested for speaking out for the United Mine Workers of America. It is where politicians like Democratic state senator Richard Ojeda actually have a shot in running for Congress. Ojeda, a DACA supporter, alternative energy proponent, sponsor of pro-marijuana legislation, and a veteran, unleashed a hell of a tweet storm in support of the teachers, specifically tying the teachers' strike to the history of West Virginia labor activism.

Many teachers have said what Liz told me: "We're supposed to take a bullet for the kids, but we're not good enough to pay a fair wage." She also tied the uprising by the teachers to the uprising of the students from Parkland, Florida, after the massacre there. "Something is happening," she exclaimed. "I don't know what. I don't know how far it will go. But it sure feels like something is happening."

I'll leave you with the words of a teacher, Brittany Dolly, who is a West Virginia native. She frames the fight as being for the very soul of the state, and this is why the teachers have the support of the public while jerks like Attorney General Patrick Morrisey are out of touch: "I would like the public to understand that this is a time of crisis. Not only a crisis for teachers who find it increasingly more difficult to support their families, but a time of crisis for the state as we face a future where quality educators no longer come to or stay in West Virginia. For now, I will stay and fight for all West Virginians, because this fight is more important than a pay increase or benefits for state employees. This fight is about making a better West Virginia."

As the Supreme Court seems on the verge of gutting public unions, it is a good time to remember that strong unions make for a strong country.

You can support the teachers through the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and through the West Virginia Education Association.