The West Virginia teachers' strike goes on.Union leadership settled things with the governor and announced the strike was done on Tuesday but they didn't bother to ask the membership. When they did, the members said there is no deal and they didn't return to work. Teachers aren't taking anything for granted.
Promises from the governor of a 5% raise are not enough. They have stayed out on strike now for over a week. Teachers and other support personnel want to know there is a done deal with the State Legislature before they return to work. Many are also concerned about the health benefits issue where only a task force has been set up to deal with the Public Employees Insurance Agency health insurance coverage.
This is becoming a more amazing story as it enters its second week.
Jacobin interviewed teacher Jay O'Neal.
On Tuesday night, it was announced that the strike was resolved. Can you tell us about how things played out here on the ground?
Many of us were protesting at the capitol on early Tuesday afternoon, and we decided to stay because word spread that NBC News would be filming live at 6 PM. We also knew that the union leadership was meeting at this time with the governor. But nobody knew what would happen. Up until this point, the governor had been obstinate — he kept insisting that nothing could be done to meet our demands.
So while the union leaders were with the governor, we were all out on the steps, waiting for the NBC newscast to start. There was a big crowd. As is the case these days, everybody was on their phones, trying to follow the news to get a sense of what was going on.
Within ten minutes, we found out through the governor’s press conference that a deal had been reached. Teachers and school staff would get a 5 percent pay raise, and 3 percent for all state employees. The governor also said that a task force would be set up to figure out how to improve PEIA, our statewide health insurance plan for public sector workers.
Fifteen minutes after the press conference, union leaders came out and addressed the crowd. The basic problem was that they presented this deal as a victory. They told us we’d be out on strike one more day, then return to school on Thursday.
People were up in arms, really frustrated. Of course, a 5 percent raise is great, but what we’ve been really fighting for in this struggle is PEIA. This has been a huge issue, causing problems for years. They’ve been cutting our health insurance over and over, making it really expensive to survive.
So when it was announced that all we got on PEIA was a task force, people were upset. Teachers in the crowd started interrupting and yelling at our leaders: “We’re not going back in for that!” Everyone started chanting, “We are the union bosses! We are the union bosses!” and “Back to the table! Back to the table!”
Strikers now have a sense of our power, and we don’t want to back down. We weren’t satisfied with the deal. Again, this is mainly because of the health insurance. People are nervous and rightly cynical that the state government has any actual intention to fix this. A lot of teachers are now awakening to what’s happening at our statehouse.We need to see real movement, real solutions, for PEIA. We need a new revenue source. A lot of us have been saying that the solution is a severance tax on natural gas. This would only tax the big out-of-state corporations, not ordinary West Virginians.
Another teacher is quoted in the Charleston Gazette Mail. His view is a little different:
Workers interviewed Thursday had different ideas of what would persuade them to return (to work).
Nick Watts, a teacher at Kanawha County's Sissonville High, said of the idea to turn HB4145 (the 5% salary increase bill) into a PEIA funding bill that "It sounds like there's a lot more risk involved for us in that situation than just giving a raise"
Watts said the raise would seemingly be more guaranteed to continue to be funded, and said diverting that money to a PEIA fund next fiscal year could mean that same amount of money won't be allocated there in future years, and could mean money might be recalled from the fund.
"What's the guarantee that that money actually finds its way into the PEIA problem?" Watts asked. "That's a question I would like to see answered."
He said that "with the raise, it's there and we know it's there, and it's a guarantee now until it's written out of the (state) code.A one-time $58 million into the PEIA trust fund, if there’s no guarantee that that’s going to be something that’s continual, then I don’t see that as a fix for PEIA.”