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What West Virginia teachers are fighting for

Public school teachers in West Virginia -- among the lowest-paid in the country -- went on strike for an eighth consecutive day on Monday, and schools in all of the state's 55 counties remain closed to more than a quarter million students. William Brangham talks with Ryan Quinn of The Charleston Gazette-Mail about what’s at stake for the educators.

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  • William Brangham:

    Public school teachers in West Virginia are on strike for the eighth consecutive day. Schools in all of the state's 55 counties remain closed to more than a quarter million students.

    Teachers, who are about 20,000 strong, say they're striking for better working conditions, better health insurance and increased pay. They are among the lowest paid teachers in the country, with an average salary of about $45,000 a year.

    Last week, Republican Governor Jim Justice approved a 5 percent pay raise for teachers, which passed the state House. But that measure didn't make it past the state Senate, prompting teachers to stay on the picket lines into today.

    For the latest on this strike, I'm joined by Ryan Quinn of The Charleston Gazette-Mail.

    Ryan Quinn, thank you very much for being here.

    Can you just lay out roughly, what are the issues at stake here for the teachers?

  • Ryan Quinn:

    The biggest one is their health insurance coverage, Public Employees Insurance Agency coverage.

    They want benefit cuts and insurance premium increases to stop, and they want long-term funding promises to prevent those in the future, although they seem to happy at this time with the governor's task force to actually work on those into the future.

    Secondarily is pay. They have — they want this pay increase that the governor has proposed and that the House of Delegates have passed of 5 percent for next school year to actually go through. That would equal about a $2,000 raise for teachers for next school year. And then they also don't want other bills to pass that they oppose, like ones that would make it more difficult to divert their paychecks to pay union dues and ones downplaying the role of seniority and layoffs and transfers.

    They want those all to disappear. Seems like that's going to happen.

  • William Brangham:

    I know you're in the state capitol right now as we speak. And the crowds have gotten so big both inside and outside that they had to close the building for safety fears. With this much attention and this much passion, how do you see this playing out?

  • Ryan Quinn:

    It's tough to tell.

    The Senate was met by — we have 55 counties in West Virginia. School systems' borders are contiguous with the counties, so each of them has one superintendent. Over 40 county superintendents came to the capitol on Friday, told the Senate president that we're going to have a really tough time actually getting our workers back into schools and, thereby, getting students back into schools, unless you pass this 5 percent pay raise for next school year.

    And the Senate president has not yet actually acquiesced to that demand, and the strike continues. And it's now tied our last statewide strike, our last teacher strike at all, 1990. And it's up to eight school days now, and it looks like it's going to continue tomorrow if action isn't taken, and that will break the record.

  • William Brangham:

    Do the teachers have the public support? I can imagine there's a lot of working parents in West Virginia who, while they may support better pay and benefits, also have kids that they want to get back into school. Do they have public support for this?

  • Ryan Quinn:

    It seems like it.

    I have gotten some calls from angry parents, and I have seen some posts on social media. But, consistently, we have county school systems that are refusing to take legal action to try to stop the strike. It's generally agreed, although it's only been tested I think once previously in court, that public school employees don't actually have the right to strike.

    And yet you don't see county school systems trying to take legal action or the State Department of Education trying to take legal action or anyone else trying to actually get them back into classrooms.

    So it seems like the county school systems are going to continue as they have for the past few days.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Ryan Quinn of The Charleston Gazette-Mail, thank you so much.

  • Ryan Quinn:

    Thank you.

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