West Virginia Teachers' Strike Continues

John Denver, a famous songwriter and singer, once called West Virginia “almost heaven,” but for the public employees there, it’s almost hell.

West Virginia teachers are the 48th worst paid in the country, and after Republicans in 2014 passed a law prohibiting mandatory union dues on top of the state’s treatment of teacher strikes as unlawful and a lack of collective bargaining rights, it seemed like this situation would never improve. However, almost every West Virginia teacher in all 55 counties, as well as other school service employees, are heading into their 9th days of strikes, as part of their first strike in 28 years.

It appeared after four days of strikes that the strike would end when WV Governor Jim Justice agreed to the teachers’ demands for a 5% pay raise. He came to this declaration after speaking to sixth-grader Gideon Titus-Glover who said, “Wouldn’t it be an investment to invest in smart teachers that would make me smart and then I can in turn, turn around and do smart, good things for our state?” The governor said that he had not been looking at the teacher pay raises in such a way, but Gideon had changed his outlook. This is another amazing example of how children are becoming a force to reckon with in politics and are taking charge.

Unfortunately, the WV Senate did not see the pay raise the same way. While the House approved a bill with the 5% pay raise, the Senate approved a bill with only a 4% pay raise which the House did not adopt. The teachers also refused to accept anything less than 5%, and in a state with a 17.9% poverty rate, one can understand why. Across the nation, teachers are often forced to take on so many more tasks beyond actually educating students. They counsel, handle conflicts in the classroom, coach, advise, decorate and buy supplies on their own dime, feed and clothe students, parent and more often than not, risk their lives to protect children from mass shooters. They do this all with limited resources and respect. In fact, many of the teachers in the West Virginia actually have second jobs on top of their already complicated, tasking, multi-faceted jobs. Kristie Skidmore, an elementary school reading specialist, has a clothing shop at her home.

The teachers also have poor health insurance because we live in a bizarre dystopian world where people who dedicate their lives to educating the next generation are denied basic necessities. Public Employees Insurance Agency has premiums that, according to employees, are too high. Jenny Craig has been teaching for ten years but actually makes less money now because of the cost of insurance; her diabetic husband's insulin has skyrocketed in price from $25 to $180.

If a conclusion is not reached in the capitol, there could be devastating impacts on the education of West Virginia’s youth. WV teachers earn on average about $45,000 per year.  Paige Muendel, a seventh-grade special education teacher from Morgantown says she can make $20,000 more across the border in the Pennsylvania while Greg Cruey, a K-8 social studies teacher, says he can make $10,000 more working in Virginia. This is coupled with the fact that West Virginia desperately needs to fill their 700 open teaching positions. Katie Cole, a preschool teacher for those with special needs, did not have a qualified substitute teacher when she missed three days of school. This is absolutely appalling and will surely drive talented teachers out of the state.

The good news in all of this is that the teachers are backed by parents, students and even Governor Justice who was quoted saying, “For crying out loud, we are putting our children at risk” in reference to the Senate’s refusal to adopt the House’s bill. A GoFundMe page has received over $218,000 in donations to support the teachers, and the teachers, in the midst of striking and protesting, are still giving back by collecting food for students who need the free meals school provides. Parents are also pitching in; Petra Vasale has been providing free day care for up to eight children at her house to support the students. She even took the children to the capitol to protest with signs reading: “I know up on top you are seeing great sights, but down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.” Parent, Rachel Stringer, said of the strike, "They deserve to be paid," and, "They deserve to be able to have insurance." The fact that it’s 2018 and this is a revolutionary statement and not simply fact is disheartening and evidence as to why this teacher strike is so important.

On the heels of the gun control protests, it is so empowering that everyday people are exercising their right to peaceably assemble and are taking back their country. This fever for change is also sweeping the nation. Oklahoma teachers who are 49th in the nation for teacher pay, behind WV, are considering a strike and so are Kentucky teachers.