West Virginia’s teachers strike entered its second day Friday, as educators from public schools across the state continued to protest at the statehouse over wages and health insurance.
Teachers started striking Thursday, a day after Republican West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed a 2 percent pay increase for teachers for the next fiscal year, and a 1 percent pay increase for the two subsequent fiscal years. Teachers said the increase still wouldn’t keep up with their rising health care costs.
— Ryan Quinn (@RyanEQuinn) February 23, 2018
Teachers indicated the strike would continue through Monday. Here’s what you need to know:
Why are teachers angry?
Teachers across the state argued that the pay increase did not do enough to offset the rising health care premiums from the state Public Employee Insurance Agency, at the same time that their benefits are getting slashed in the state budget.
The average starting salary for a West Virginia public school teacher is $32,435, and the average salary is $44,701, according to the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA). West Virginia teacher pay ranks 48th in the United States, the Associated Press reported.
“I don’t think we’re asking for anything that’s way out of line,” Charleston South High School teacher Joe Oliver told the PBS NewsHour. “Just give us what we deserve.”
Oliver, who teaches computer science, photography, and TV and media studies, is one of thousands of teachers striking in all 55 counties across the state. A swath of those teachers and their supporters rallied at the West Virginia statehouse on Thursday, and protests continued in the capital and across the state on Friday.
When Oliver marched on the West Virginia Capitol with other teachers on Thursday, he said cars whizzing by waved and honked in support of the demonstrating educators.
“We have the community behind us,” he said.
Public schools were closed for the second day after thousands of teachers filled the West Virginia state capitol to protest their pay and benefits on February 23. Source: Rhone Michael Thomas | Get access to this and more on Storyful's Newswire: https://t.co/ZtvGQMfwn2 pic.twitter.com/7byJoVLCZ2
— Storyful (@Storyful) February 23, 2018
The teachers are barred from using their work email and social media, so coordination has been mostly through word of mouth, Oliver said. Other educators at South Charleston High School and the teacher’s union notified him after classes let out on Wednesday that the strike would take place, Oliver said.
It’s the first statewide teachers strike since 1990, when teachers protested similar wage issues.
The state’s response
After signing the pay raise bill Wednesday, Justice issued a statement saying that the state Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) agreed to freeze health insurance rates for 16 months “while we examine it and enact a long-term solution to the PEIA problems.”
“We need to keep our kids and teachers in the classroom,” Justice said. “We certainly recognize our teachers are underpaid and this is a step in the right direction to addressing their pay issue.”
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, also issued a statement on Wednesday calling the strike unlawful and threatening to take legal action.
“Let us make no mistake, the impending work stoppage is unlawful,” Morrisey said. “We also stand ready to assist and support any county board of education or county superintendent as they enforce the law.”
“Breaking the law does not set a good example for our children,” he added.
The West Virginia House of Delegates voted to send $29 million from the state’s rainy day fund to pay for the health insurance rate freeze. That bill awaits a vote in the state senate. The state House also unanimously passed a bill which would set aside 20 percent of budget surpluses for a separate fund to stabilize PEIA, the AP reported. Teachers and their allies have voiced skepticism that the measures are permanent fixes.
On Friday, union leaders from the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, West Virginia School Service Personnel Association and WVEA announced the strike would continue on Monday.
“Our members have spoken,” WVEA President Dale Lee told reporters in Charleston on Friday. “The education employees are not prepared to go back to work yet,” he said.
Oliver, who has been teaching in West Virginia at the high school and collegiate levels for nearly two decades, said he hoped the state legislature and unions would be able to reach a solution soon so he can go back to work.
“I don’t want to drag this out,” Oliver said. “I want to give the kids an education that they deserve.”