No end in sight: Dem lawmakers, students rally behind WV teachers as strike continues

Teacher strike sign reads "We are not dumb bunnies "
Photo: Tamar Auber

The West Virginia state Senate refuses to vote on the teacher pay raise promised by Gov. Jim Justice to end the strike. Teachers say they won’t go back to work until it does.

On Friday, schools in all 55 counties remained closed and West Virginia teachers were still on the picket line, despite calls from Gov. Jim Justice to return to the classroom.

The walkout started last Thursday when teachers staged a work stoppage to protest low pay and increasing health insurance costs. It was declared “over” the following Tuesday, when union leaders met with Justice and a deal was struck promising a 5 percent pay raise.

At the time, Justice, who once called teachers “dumb bunnies,” touted the deal as a sign that his “commitment to education has been consistent from day one” and he appeared so convinced the deal would work he left the statehouse straight after the announcement to coach a girls’ basketball game  (much to the chagrin of teachers who have noted Justice has been mostly AWOL in the process).

Then, just one day later, the deal fell apart when the state Senate refused to make good on Justice’s promise.

On Wednesday, the designated “cooling off” period before school was supposed to resume, the House of Delegates voted  98-1 for the 5 percent pay raise and sent the bill to the Senate for a final vote. The Senate, without even considering the measure, went home.

Teachers, who are skeptical that the legislature would ultimately follow through, refused to go back to work without the promised pay raise on Thursday and then again on Friday and thus extending the walkout to over a week.  Meanwhile, Senate President Mitch Carmichael proposed an entirely different deal that would put the money for the teachers’ pay raise towards the state’s Public Employees Insurance Agency costs in lieu of the 5 percent increase.

Now, as the strike enters its second weekend, there is no clear path to ending the teachers’ strike because Republican-controlled state Senate has refused to vote on the matter twice.

On Friday, county school superintendents traveled to Charleston to meet with Carmichael and Justice in hopes of ending the strike, which impacts all of the state’s 55 counties.

Students of all ages also rallied behind teachers and demonstrated at the Capitol.

Meanwhile, school employees, at least in the southern counties, say all this could be over if the Senate fulfills its promise and votes for the pay raise from Justice’s deal.

State Democrats are also calling for Republicans to do their part to get teachers back to work.

“It’s time for Senate Republicans to stop playing games with teachers’ lives,” West Virginia House Democrats said in a statement on Friday. “A deal was made with Governor Justice, teachers, Republicans & Democrats in the House, and Senate Democrats. WE MADE A DEAL, NOW PASS THE BILL!”

There is no word yet if schools will be open in any of the 55 counties on Monday. The Senate Finance Committee plans on meeting on Saturday to take up the measure.