Anger mounts over sellout of West Virginia teachers’ strike

The WSWS urges teachers in West Virginia to contact us to receive updates and information on opposing the agreement.

To the shock and anger of West Virginia teachers and school employees, union leaders announced Tuesday evening that they were shutting down the statewide strike and ordering educators back to the classrooms Thursday without achieving any of their demands.

The West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) and American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia (AFT-WV) are trying to end the powerful strike based on a flimsy pledge by Governor Jim Justice that the Republican-controlled state legislature will approve a one-time, five percent pay increase sometime in the coming days or weeks.

Even if the measure were passed—and that is far from guaranteed—the proposal would leave teachers’ pay near the bottom in the nation. It does nothing to address the strikers’ main demand: to fully fund the state’s Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA). This means that any raise will be eaten up by rising medical costs for educators, many of whom are already forced to rely on second jobs or food stamps to feed their families.

Teachers and school employees should reject this stab in the back and demand the right to vote before any of the more than 30,000 striking workers return to work. The efforts to sabotage the strike underscore the necessity of teachers and support staff taking the conduct of the struggle out of the hands of the unions by electing rank-and-file strike committees in every school, workplace and community.

Instead of retreating, educators should reach out to all workers—state employees, coal miners, hospital workers, factory workers and students and young people—and mobilize the broadest support for their fight for living wages, affordable health care and quality public education.

The deal came after backroom discussions between union officials and Justice, the state’s billionaire governor, on Tuesday afternoon. It was announced at a 6:00 pm press conference at the capitol in Charleston. The governor praised the “wonderful union reps” and said, “We have concluded at least as far as an agreement as we could possibly, and the teachers will go back to work on Thursday.”

The pay increase, he said, was a “very small part of the overall budget,” and would not result in any increased taxes on corporations, which were reaping large profits from the “uptick in the economy,” the rising stock markets and Trump’s “tax reform.”

As far as the PEIA is concerned, the governor said, a task force, which would include the leaders of the two teacher unions and the school service workers union, would “dig in and look for permanent solutions for a PEIA fix.” The same bogus pledge has been made by governors, Democratic and Republican alike, for the last three decades, and public employees are still burdened with crushing health care costs.

While the governor’s spokesman stumbled over a reporter’s question about inevitable opposition from state legislators, the union officials stepped in to give their blessing to this fraud.

“What we are saying is, we are calling for our teachers and service professionals to go back into schools on Thursday,” WVEA President Dale Lee said. “We are taking this bill in good faith at this point, but we reserve the right, if things get bogged down, our people may have to be called out again. We are going to have to see how this legislative process goes. But our teachers and service professionals want to be back in the classrooms and with their students, so we will be out tomorrow but going back in on Thursday.”

AFT-WV President Christine Campbell also defended the sellout, saying, “This has been a huge step in the right direction. We have a commitment.

“I believe [teachers] don’t want to be first in the country in pay,” Campbell, who has a union salary of $121,000, said. “They know where we live in West Virginia. They want to be out of 48th in the nation. This isn’t the end. If things get better, we can begin to focus on public education. We never doubted the governor’s commitment to public education, but we needed evidence, the teachers needed evidence. This is a commitment that better things are going to happen.”

The unions are using Wednesday’s “cooling off period” to try to sell the agreement to an angry membership. Although Campbell repeatedly claimed that all the actions of the union had been voted on by the membership, teachers will have no right to vote on being forced back to work without anything but more worthless promises.

Regardless of the statements about “reserving the right to go out on strike again,” the unions have done the dirty work of Justice, the state legislature and the corporate interests behind them by demobilizing school employees and delivering them to the mercies of the corporate-controlled politicians.

The “deal” was immediately hailed by state Democrats, whom union executives falsely have presented as friends of the teachers. The Democrats have controlled the governor’s office for 32 out of the last 40 years. They serve the mining and energy bosses no less ruthlessly than the Republicans.

Without knowing anything about the sellout, teachers were told to go to the state capitol, where they were used as extras when the deal to end the strike was announced on the national broadcast of NBC Nightly News. Despite the effort to generate enthusiasm with celebratory music, when officials came out to announce details of the deal they were met with anger and frustration.

According to a striker who spoke to the WSWS Teacher Newsletter, one educator began screaming at a union official, saying his wife was sick and they needed to fix the PEIA. The teacher was quickly taken away by what appeared to be security. “A lot of people know they are grandstanding, and we see through it.”

“I am really unhappy, upset and frustrated by this decision,” another West Virginia teacher, Nicole, told the WSWS. “Why should we believe anything this legislature has to say to us? I don’t believe anything. All they have ever done is attack teachers and public education!

“We have spent literally years of begging and pleading to them to please help us, to please make sure our children are fed, that we should be able to feed our own children. They don’t look at us as people, but as pawns.

“We’ve been wearing buttons saying we ‘deserve a competitive wage’ for five or six years. Five percent doesn’t even touch ‘competitive.’ Jim Justice came up with an anecdote about a child changing his thinking—my goodness, how many times have we begged and pleaded!

“I was at the capitol again today, and there were about 1,500 people there, inside and out. It’s not the same show of force. It took drastic measures to even get the legislature to notice us. But once we go back, teachers would be less likely to come out again.”

A teacher at the Glen Fork Elementary School said, “Five percent is not enough. We have to fix the PEIA. They have been promising to fix the PEIA every year, but the rates just keep going up and up.

“I would not be in favor of going back to work without the PEIA being fixed. What would be the point? The politicians just want to get elected again and just give us promises. If they don’t fix the PEIA, we end up taking a pay cut.

“Another thing that we don’t hear much about is what is happening to those teachers that are retired or on disability. I know one person who is disabled and has to use almost his entire check to pay for his health insurance. What is going to happen as the insurance goes up? He will be left with nothing.”

The West Virginia Education Association’s own Facebook page recorded the anger of educators. Vickie Lawrence Osborne said, “I’m sitting here seriously re-thinking my WVEA membership.”

“Cooling off for whom?” asked Debbie Jones. “Teachers are ready. Parents and children are ready. We won’t be anywhere near the people we need cooling from! Lol.”

Debra Wooten McClain added, “Dale Lee should be ashamed of himself. The teachers need a fix for PEIA. That’s what this whole thing was about. The union looks like it sold out.”