BREAKING: Kentucky teachers to protest pension cuts on heels of West Virginia strike

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Just two days after West Virginia teachers won a hard-fought salary increase, educators in Kentucky are ramping up protests of legislation that would severely cut their retirement benefits.

Early in February, West Virginia educators held walk-in actions to protest rising insurance premiums and low salary increases. Less than three weeks later, they were on strike.

On Thursday, Kentucky educators staged a series of similar walk-in actions to protest a state Senate bill that would slash retirement benefits for teachers and other state employees.

And 50 States of Blue has learned that teachers in Floyd County have already planned a rally this Saturday to protest the Senate bill.

The bill, which would cut billions of dollars in pension benefits, passed out of a Kentucky Senate committee Wednesday despite vocal protests from teachers attending the voting session.

Educators across Kentucky gathered in front of their schools early Thursday, holding signs in opposition to the bill so that parents and other passersby would take notice. Teachers then walked into school to begin teaching.

At least 26 Kentucky schools had actions planned for Thursday, with some teachers holding morning walk-ins and others participating in rallies at the end of the school day.

Janet Johnson Wells, a teacher who has worked at Rockcastle County High School for over 30 years, said the walk-in at her school Thursday had a strong turnout.

“Most inspiring were the students gathered in the front entry who greeted us with applause as we walked in,” Johnson Wells said.

The Kentucky pension bill would cut cost-of-living increases to retired teachers’ pensions in order to help address the fact that Kentucky is missing at least $41 billion of the money it needs to pay out the next 30 years of benefits.

It’s unclear whether the legislation is legal — Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear told lawmakers Tuesday that if the bill passes, a court would likely strike down such changes to the retirement benefits teachers were originally promised.

“Promises were made to us by the commonwealth, and those promises need to be kept by the commonwealth,” Rockcastle County High School teacher Erin Grace told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

If those promises aren’t met, walk-ins are just the beginning. 

Such escalation mirrors the pattern in West Virginia, where walk-ins preceded a nine-day strike that ended Tuesday after teachers won a 5 percent pay raise for all state employees.

But lawmakers don’t seem to be taking teachers’ activism seriously. Asked about the Thursday walk-ins, Kentucky House Speaker Pro Tempore David Osborne quipped, “I hope they walk in every day and teach our kids.”

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin was combative in response to questions on whether he was concerned about a potential teachers’ strike.

“The reality is, I’m saving the pension system,” Bevin told the Herald-Leader. “If they are upset about it, it’s either they are ill-informed or willfully blind.”