by Donna Dewitt, retired President, South Carolina AFL-CIO
WV teachers pay ranks 48th in the nation, with a minimum $32,000 annually and there has been no increase since 2014. Collective bargaining is prohibited for WV public employees and the Governor and Legislature are Republican. Across the state teachers walked out on February 22 in an act of civil disobedience to demand an increase in wages and an end to spiking insurance premium increases. 20,000 teachers and 13,000 school service personnel in 55 counties were joined by parents and students during the nine day protest.
The little known fact that the state decided if they called it a strike they would have to impose injunctions threatened by the state attorney general. Authorities referred to it as “Snow Days” and the teachers continued to be paid. The state police were, also, demanding a 5% increase and many of their family members were teachers. Therefore, the authorities did not want to call them out to random pickets. The strike fund was used to help families in need, mostly kids on the picket lines. A large percent of WV students qualify for free lunches. The strike fund raised $200,000. (contributed to Alan Benjamin)
The members defied the union leadership, who encouraged the strikers to return to work on the promise of the 5% wage increase, and remained strong until the wage increase was approved by the Legislature and a commitment was made on the employee health insurance, creating a bipartisan task force appointed by the Governor. There have been spontaneous protestations, encouraged by Koch Brothers funding, that the 5% will result in cuts to social programs and Medicaid. The response from the governor’s office has been that it will come from new revenue or executive branch cuts.
Social media provided broad communication that allowed constant news on the strike. The many statements of solidarity and presence of other international unions including CWA members on strike at Frontier and UMWA members and their President Cecil Roberts strengthened the solidarity efforts. Lita Blanc, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, coordinated a GoFund Pizza fund that raised approximately $21,000. The pizzas were delivered through AFT leaders in West Virginia on the crucial last days of the strike. Any money remaining was divided between the three teachers unions in WV.
The WV strike provides inspiration to teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, NJ, Arizona, Oregon and others to days of protest and strikes on issues of retirement, wages, insurance and other issues. Adjunct professors in Edinburgh Scotland on strike held signs of solidarity with WV teachers. They were inspired and despite encouragement from their union leaders to accept a new contract, they voted not to accept. The WV strike aligned with other progressive movements and captured the power to create wins. The strike further promotes the energy of independent politics to create a workers movement.
We know the resistance will be extreme. We see it in Florida in the proposed law for teachers unions to prove 50% membership. 24 states do not allow public employees to authorize in this manner. Wisconsin opened the door for this and there will probably be revamping in many states. Every state will be faced with these ALEC laws to further erode union membership. In the words of MLK “Unjust law is as good as no law at all.”
“But the lesson of West Virginia is not that unions are no longer the vehicle needed to advance workers’ struggles. Unions are needed more than ever. The lesson is that the rank-and-file have the power—and, if harnessed, that power can overcome what appear to be insurmountable obstacles. The lesson is that to win, democratic control of the unions from the bottom up is needed, with restored bargaining rights and local control over bargaining. The lesson is that right-to-work laws must be repealed. In a nutshell, what is needed is to reclaim the unions for struggle.” Alan Benjamin, The Organizer.