On Thursday, the public school teachers of West Virginia staged a wildcat strike. Without authorization from either of the state’s two education unions—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—teachers walked out to register their dissatisfaction with the government’s response to their grievances.
Earlier in the week, Republican Governor Jim Justice and the unions’ state leads had come up with a compromise bill, HB 4145, that raised teacher pay by 5 percent. But it did not create a permanent fix for the Public Employee Insurance Agency, which is meant to provide all public employees with affordable health insurance but has effectively been cutting funding every year. As I previously reported, some teachers distrusted the deal when it was first announced on Wednesday. A letter that day from Justice to state employees announcing the formation of a PEIA task force did not mollify many of them.
On Wednesday night, the bill passed the state House. On Thursday, Senate Republicans voted against taking it up. Shortly afterwards, news of further teacher walkouts began rolling across social media. At 6:02 pm, it was official: There would be no public school in West Virginia on Friday, which means schools across the state will have been closed for a full week. And now, teachers are demanding that lawmakers take a hard look at fixing PEIA, possibly using a modest tax hike on the coal and gas industries.
It’s not clear now when the strike will end, and state Democrats are pinning the blame on Republicans. Minority Leader Roman Prezioso told me on Thursday that he’s not surprised Republicans voted to table the bill. “We think that it’s a stall tactic,” he explained, “and that their ulterior motive is to turn public sentiment against the teachers.”
The continuation of the strike raises two possible courses of action for the state: It could try to issue injunctions to force teachers back into classrooms, or it could hire replacement workers, better known as scabs. But Anne Lofaso, a professor of law at West Virginia University and the parent of a child in public school, told me that she thinks the first option would backfire and that the second option is unlikely to occur. There are 727 teacher vacancies in the state, meaning government officials have no adequate supply of replacement labor.
The state could try to call in substitute teachers, but according to Lofaso, substitute teachers are standing in solidarity with full-time educators. And even if they did cross picket lines, there would still be vacancies. “It’s economic warfare,” she said. “Each side has a quiver, and they have their arrows in the quiver, and the arrow in the quiver of the teachers is the right to strike.”
While some state officials have called the strike illegal, Lofaso objected to that characterization. “The only thing that the West Virginia Supreme Court has stated is that public employees are unprotected by the state constitution and they’re unprotected by the federal constitution,” she explained. “There’s a big difference between being illegal and being unprotected.” There is no statute, for example, that assigns criminal penalties to striking public workers. However, teachers could legally face disciplinary action for refusing to go to work, as one analysis by Politifact confirmed.
And the injunction process would be difficult. Lofaso, who formerly worked for the National Labor Relations Board, explained that the state would have to file an injunction in every county in the state, then successfully argue that the strike endangered a child’s constitutional right to an education more than the state’s own inadequate funding of the public school system.
Teachers, meanwhile, are digging in. Kristina Gore, who teaches fifth grade social studies in Logan County, said some teachers on her picket line had been prepared to give the PEIA task force a chance to work. “A lot of teachers do understand that PEIA is a complex issue and that it’s going to take time,” she explained. When senate Republicans tabled the pay raise, however, that good will largely died. “Prior to that, the mood on a lot of picket lines in our county was that a lot of teachers were considering going back to work tomorrow. But once we heard that the pay raise was tabled the mood at my school is that we’re not going back to work,” she said.
The issue has expanded beyond the plight of teachers. “I don’t think I recall seeing so much anger being openly expressed,” said Gordon Simmons, an organizer for the United Electrical Workers, which represents state and local workers. “My phone and email have been blowing up with state workers asking what they can do to support school employees. Historically, state government has played teachers, who are highly unionized, against everyone else. The PEIA issue has put all public workers in West Virginia in the same boat, and the resulting sense of solidarity is awesome.”
The protesting teachers are beginning to link their efforts to the state’s long history of worker activism. “I feel that history is repeating itself,” said Gore. “And I’m talking way back to the coal camp days, when the miners were paid in scrip and they were basically owned by their employers.” Gore’s county, Logan, is the home of Blair Mountain, where an anti-union sheriff and union-busting detectives bombed and shot at striking miners. Gore’s mother grew up near Blair.
A recurring complaint during the strike is the state’s low severance tax of about 5 percent on coal and natural gas extraction. Other states have higher tax rates, and raising West Virginia’s rate could help fund PEIA. “Even a modest increase to 7.5 percent, while leaving plenty for the industry, would have a big impact on the state’s finances,” the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy wrote on February 26. “Increasing the severance tax rate to 7.5 percent would increase severance tax revenue by $93 million in 2019, and at total $585 million from 2019 to 2023.”
And so the issue comes back, as it so often does, to West Virginia’s coal and energy industries. Solving PEIA’s financial woes means the legislature would have to confront those industries. “No one is at the point of violent revolt, it’s been a peaceful protest. But the parallel between then and now is that our state is in poverty and will continue to be in poverty because these industries come in and tell our representatives how things are going to go. Our legislators bow down to them,” Gore complained.
Justice proposed a special session to raise the severance tax on natural gas, but some members of his own party seem reluctant to change the status quo. On Tuesday, Senate Republicans voted to shelve a measure that would have diverted some existing severance tax revenue to PEIA. And on Thursday evening, not long after killing the pay raise bill, Senate President Mitch Carmichael expressed further opposition to raising the tax. “Carmichael said raising the severance tax on natural gas could cause West Virginia to be less competitive than its neighbors, Ohio and Pennsylvania,” reported the West Virginia MetroNews. (Last year, Carmichael had supported a measure that would’ve reduced the severance tax even further.)
“This has moved from a strike to a movement to a reckoning,” Gore said. “And that reckoning is on public officials who are in the pockets of big energy.”