For the last two weeks, the teachers of West Virginia have, for the second time in thirty years, engaged in one of our state’s most honored and ingrained traditions: the strike. Since the legendary rise of the United Mine Workers of America in the beginning of the 20th century, in which West Virginia coal miners were freed from near slavery at the hands of the coal bosses and won better wages and working conditions, striking has been a noble means of the working class to stand up for itself.
In the midst of the 60-day legislative session, it became clear that our long suffering teachers, 48th in the nation in compensation, were going to have to make due with a 2% pay raise- the first raise of any kind in five years. As West Virginia attempts to climb out of a huge financial hole, this seemed reasonable, if small. However, coming along with the raise was a drastic hike in public employee insurance premiums, which would negate any raise and likely result in a net pay cut.
The teachers unions conferred and announced a two-day work stoppage on a Thursday and a Friday, during which they would rally at the capitol building in hopes of impressing upon the legislature their demands. They were ignored. What followed was 7 more days of closed schools, 13 days total of rallies and an ever increasing crowd of chanting, picketing, angry and determined teachers filling the beautiful, marble halls outside of the senate and house chambers. The overwhelmingly conservative Republican controlled legislature seemed unmoved, the teachers undeterred. Democrats diverged from Republicans; they both disagreed with the governor.
There were songs, clever signs, catchy chants, and minute-by-minute social media coverage. There emerged heroes- the handsome, combat veteran democrat senator whose name became a chant after several rousing floor speeches and Facebook live streams- and villains, like the perpetually smirking Republican senate president who could barely mask, if he even tried, his disdain for the teachers and their plight.
There was remarkable political gamesmanship on display. The warring factions accused each other of grandstanding, intentional delay, and pitting the teachers against the rest of the state workers. All were likely correct, to some extent. While the legislators fought under the gold dome of our capitol, the teachers returned each day to chant, march, join hands, and fill the hallways. The majority party insisted it was a waste of their time, that nothing could be done, and they had just as well take their two percent and go back to school; the teachers declined and their numbers swelled daily.
Meanwhile, public sentiment for the teachers, which began strong, dwindled a bit along with the paid leave balances of parents who scrambled to make arrangements for their children on a day to day basis. But even those who grew impatient with situation never voiced more than a grumble, because in this impoverished, often hopeless slate, they know that teachers and education are our best chance to improve our conditions.
In a state of generational poverty, teachers are the first line of defense. It is no secret that educators have always had to deal with children in their classrooms that come from homes of addiction, abuse, neglect, and/or extreme poverty. Today’s teachers in West Virginia contend with these issues on an unprecedented scale, and they do so for relatively little money.
Nevertheless, there were detractors who decried the teachers’ decision to strike, claiming that if these greedy teachers cared about their students they would be in the classroom. In stark contrast to that narrative, stories abounded of teachers and administrators who, throughout the strike, gave their own time and money to pack bags of food for children who, they knew, would likely go hungry while schools were closed.
Yes, there is an argument to be made that the teachers knew what they were getting into when they chose this profession, in this place. It is further true that almost nobody in West Virginia makes the kind of money they could earn elsewhere. We do not have money to spare, even as our economic picture brightens just a touch. However, neither do we have teachers to spare; there are already 700 vacancies.
In the end, the teachers got their money, along with the rest of the state employees. The insurance issue was not fixed, and that behemoth is a topic for another day. No matter which side one falls on, one must admire the absolute tenacity of the teachers, their refusal to give up and slink away. It is, when you think about it, a fitting metaphor for this state, where a repressed, disadvantaged people trudge on, fighting for a better life, like generations of West Virginians before them.