National News

West Virginia Teachers’ Strike Ends With a Promise to Raise Pay

Posted February 27, 2018 10:00 p.m. EST

A teachers’ strike that ground public schools to a halt across West Virginia is set to end Thursday, a week after it began, Gov. James C. Justice and teachers’ union representatives said Tuesday night.

Justice, a Republican, said that he had promised the state’s teachers a 5 percent raise, and that he would create a task force to address the problem of rising insurance costs for public employees, a key issue in the strike.

“We need our kids back in school, and we need our teachers back in school,” said Justice, who said he was “hopeful” that state lawmakers would go along with his proposals, which would also give all state employees a 3 percent raise.

The strike left more than 250,000 children out of school in the state’s 55 counties. Teachers crying “We’ll get louder,” and carrying signs with slogans like “WV teachers deserve better” flooded the state Capitol, their voices echoing through the halls. The teachers frequently cited data showing that they are among the lowest-paid public educators in the United States.

The deal, should it come to fruition, marks a significant victory for organized labor as the Supreme Court weighs a case that could sharply curb unions’ power across the country. And it comes in a state with a storied history of mining unions — though their clout has faded with the coal industry.

“Our teachers are saying to us, we know that we did this,” said Christine Campbell of the West Virginia arm of the American Federation of Teachers.

Justice said the raises would be paid for by revising revenue estimates upward.

But it is not yet clear exactly what the state will do to lower the rising costs of insurance, which, more than salary, was the tipping point for many of the teachers who decided to join the strike. Teachers say they have struggled with rising premiums and other health care costs. The Public Employees Insurance Agency, which administers state employees’ health plans, has said it will freeze rates in 2019, but teachers have pushed for a longer-term fix.

Union leaders said Tuesday night that Justice’s promises were enough to get the teachers back into classrooms, at least for now.

“We needed evidence — the teachers needed evidence, the service personnel — and I think this is a commitment, this is a beginning of better things to happen,” Campbell said. Her group organized the strike along with the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.

She said the teachers had tried to keep their demands realistic.

“They don’t want to be first in the country in pay,” Campbell added. “They know where we live — in West Virginia. They want to be out of 48th.”

Dale Lee, the president of the West Virginia Education Association, did not rule out another strike if the deal with the governor falls through.

“We reserve the right to call our teachers and service professionals out at a later date if we need to,” Lee said.