You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

West Virginia Rises

A teacher work stoppage has shuttered schools across the state—with ramifications for workers everywhere.

John Raby/Associated Press

School’s out in West Virginia. For the fourth workday in a row, public school teachers have walked out of class and into rallies at the state capitol. They’re protesting low pay and the years-long decimation of the state’s Public Employees Insurance Agency, which is meant to provide all public employees with affordable health insurance. Their demands are simple: They want a living wage and insurance they can actually use. Instead, the state’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, initially proposed a paltry raise of 1 percent a year for the next five years. Though he later signed a bill doubling that figure, teachers say it still isn’t enough to make ends meet. And the state legislature’s refusal to increase PEIA funding commensurate with inflation and increases in pharmaceutical prices means that it essentially cuts funding every single year.

Many teachers have already left the state for better jobs elsewhere; teachers who stay often face dire financial straits. The walkouts aren’t whims, but carefully considered, collectively agreed upon responses to longstanding injustice. West Virginia legislators have responded with temporary, piecemeal solutions, and the Justice administration has responded with threats. The state schools superintendent has called the work stoppage “illegal.” State Attorney General Patrick Morrissey has threatened to issue an injunction to force teachers back to work.

These aren’t idle threats. Public employees have no collective bargaining rights in West Virginia, a so-called right-to-work state, so teachers have accepted serious risk by launching the work stoppage. But so far the threats aren’t working. If anything, they’ve backfired: West Virginia’s teachers are still walking out in a real show of populist politics, one with implications for embattled workers across the country.

Organizing reportedly began back in November, in a private Facebook group for public school teachers. West Virginia teachers don’t have to join a union, and since a union’s political leverage depends partly on its sector density, the state effectively pits unions against each other for support. The Facebook group, then, created an alternative, grassroots path to direct action.

Originally, teachers planned a lobby day, but as grievances mounted, so did support for more drastic action. “All school personnel, even those not in a union, had to vote to approve the work stoppage,” said Audra Slocum, an education professor at West Virginia University who’s been involved with the protests. “That meant that even those teachers and personnel absent for the in-person vote on that particular afternoon were counted as a ‘NO’ vote—actively counted against the work stoppage. All the same, the Monongalia County rate was 89 percent in favor.” (Monongalia is the third-largest county in the state.)

Dissatisfaction with state insurance ramped up in January, when PEIA introduced a “wellness program” for beneficiaries. This is an increasingly common practice among health insurance providers, in which insurees have to meet benchmarks to get certain benefits. But the program invades personal privacy and prejudices against those prone to ill health. And in PEIA’s case, beneficiaries who failed to meet benchmarks faced steep penalties. “Those who meet certain point thresholds will receive ‘bonus bucks’ that can be exchanged for gift cards or fitness equipment,” the West-Virginia Gazette-Mail reported on January 17. “However, beginning July 1, 2019, insurees who haven’t earned enough points will have their premiums increased by $25 a month and will have a $500 increase in their deductibles.”

Teachers in four southern coal counties walked out on February 2, not long after PEIA announced the program. On the 16th, five more counties voted to walk out. Their actions weren’t sparked solely by the wellness program, but the proposal did stack insult on top of injury. PEIA’s shortcomings, combined with pre-existing pay issues and a recent legislative proposal to weaken teacher seniority rights in layoff and transfer decisions, became more than West Virginia teachers were willing or able to bear.

Now it seems they will not be moved. Teachers who can’t make it to the capital, Charleston, are protesting in their own towns and counties; others fill the statehouse, sometimes to capacity. And many aren’t deterred by the prospect of legal action. “If they enjoin us, some teachers will go back,” Kym Randolph, a spokesperson for the West Virginia Education Association, told me. “Some have told us they plan on violating the injunction. We’re prepared to go on with this as long as it takes to get all the parties back to the table to negotiate.”

State workers, who are also affected by low pay and PEIA failures, are turning up to rallies as they can, says Gordon Simmons, a field organizer for UE-Local 170. “We’ve been trying to organize as much solidarity with the teachers as possible,” he told me; his union, the United Electrical Workers, represents state and county workers. “Their issues are our issues. The same insurance coverage they’re having troubles with is our insurance too.”

A flyer circulating on West Virginia union Facebook groups and pages.
Audra Slocum

Above it all hovers Governor Justice, a former Democrat who joined the Republican Party in 2017. “Right now the governor is AWOL,” Randolph said. “He hasn’t really talked to us personally for weeks. His staff and the House and Senate leadership have been talking, but they don’t seem to be on the same page.” Not much has been heard from Justice since he scolded teachers on February 6 for being “dumb bunnies”: “Now if you choose to respond to somebody that’s a politician that’s running through the streets that didn’t stand with you any more than I can fly through the sky then you’re being dumb bunnies. If you stand with somebody who absolutely has shown how much he loves you, I won’t let you down.”

“He sold himself as being very pro-education and both teachers’ unions went all in for him,” said Jay O’Neal, who teaches seventh grade English. “And then he flipped parties, and I think there’s been a lot of frustration because of that.” Of particular concern to teachers are the paltry raises Justice has repeatedly proposed. “All of us feel like we’re being lied to,” O’Neal added. “Most teachers have flipped on him now for sure.”

West Virginia’s walkouts invite some comparison to Wisconsin circa 2011, when teachers and public employees protested the gutting of their collective bargaining rights. Those protests attracted national attention—partly because teachers physically occupied the capitol building—but Governor Scott Walker survived a subsequent recall effort. Since 2011, the fears of Wisconsin teachers have largely come true: Salaries and benefits have declined significantly since the passage of Act 10, the law that ended their ability to collectively bargain for anything but keeping their wages adjusted for inflation.

“In the year immediately following the law’s passage, median compensation for Wisconsin teachers decreased by 8.2 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, with median benefits being cut by 18.6 percent and the median salary falling by 2.6 percent,” reported the American Progress Action Fund. “Median salaries and benefits continued to fall during the next four years so that median compensation in the 2015-16 school year was 12.6 percent—or $10,843 dollars—lower than it was before the passage of Act 10.” The state now faces a teacher shortage.

West Virginia teachers can ill afford the same outcome. But it’s important to parse out the contextual differences between the two protests. Based on the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics (from the 2011-12 school year) and Governing magazine, there are approximately 68,845 public employees, including public school teachers, in the state. About 3.7 percent of the state’s population therefore works for the government in some capacity. According to Governing’s data, published in 2014, 241 people for every 10,000 West Virginians works for state or local government; in Wisconsin, that number shrinks to 199.

Put in blunter terms, PEIA’s woes affect a larger share of West Virginia’s population. It’s harder for union critics to argue that problems afflicting PEIA and teacher pay trouble only the liberal elite. “PEIA covers over 200,000 people including dependents,” O’Neal told me.

The states also possess different labor legacies. West Virginia survived the Mine Wars, and has a history of militant, illegal direct action. On Friday afternoon, English teacher Edwina Howard-Jack cited that history to explain why the government’s legal threats haven’t frightened teachers back into school. She described, in glowing terms, a rally speech from United Mineworkers of America Secretary-Treasurer Levi Allen. “He spoke about Mother Jones, about the struggle that the coal miners went through to unionize in West Virginia. They were evicted from their homes, beaten, shot, and burned alive for our right to collective bargaining,” she said. “That really resonated with me.”

As another callback, some protesters are wearing red bandanas around their necks, just as striking miners once did. It is the origin of the term “redneck.” “To West Virginians, the term ‘redneck’ is a badge of honor,” she said. “I’ve got a red bandana around my neck right now.”

Referring to the Mine Wars, O’Neal said, “People have definitely not forgotten their history. I don’t know that this work stoppage would have happened without it.”

Support for the stoppage in West Virginia also crosses party lines. “I would say that a lot of people that I teach with are for the most part a pretty solid mix of conservative and liberal,” Mahaley Beaty, a teacher in the state’s eastern panhandle, told me. “I know a lot of people have voted for Donald Trump and I know a lot of people that voted for Hillary Clinton. And I think everybody that I know was out there rallying today.”

West Virginia’s labor history is a history of extractive capitalism, particularly as it relates to coal. Extractive industries have ravaged the state and enriched its governor, while public education represents an entirely different force. Public educators give; coal and fracking take. Right now, West Virginia rewards the latter over the former. Jim Justice’s coal companies owe the state of Kentucky $1.92 million in unpaid real estate taxes, but he remains the richest man in West Virginia. His state’s teachers, meanwhile, enjoy no such comfort.

“I actually don’t live in the county that I teach in because I cannot afford to live there,” Beaty explained. “Housing prices are too much.”

She added, “If I’m in a tough spot I have the support of my parents, but it’s been really hard even in the past couple of years with unexpected bills that come out. I mean, I don’t have any savings. I have a lot of friends that are single mothers and teachers, and I can’t imagine trying to do that on what we get paid.” According to the National Education Association, West Virginia teachers make $44,701 a year; for a beginning teacher, that average drops to $32,435.

What West Virginia, a right-to work state, is going through might one day be mirrored across the country. The Supreme Court heard arguments in Janus v. AFSCME on Monday morning, a potentially landmark case that, if the ruling goes against the union, could enable public employees in every state to opt out of union dues, thereby hurting unions’ ability to organize. Even states with strong unions would begin to look a lot more like right-to-work states—and illegal work stoppages could become the norm as a negotiating tactic.

In West Virginia, George Simmons of United Electricworkers has located a silver lining. “What I’m thinking is the best possible outcome for state workers is that teachers will be able to hold their ground,” he told me. “The long-term benefit is that state workers will see the kind of power that unionizing has given the education sector and that state workers need to have that kind of organizational density.”

The state could make good on its threats, and some teachers may not be able to call its bluff. But today is day four. Wednesday might be day five. There is talk, in fact, that teachers may stay out of school all week. And no matter what happens next, West Virginia teachers have imparted a remedial civics lesson not just to the state, but to the nation. West Virginia’s motto is Montani semper liberi: Mountaineers are always free.