You may have heard midweek that West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and leaders of the state’s two teachers’ unions reached a deal to end the strike that has kept public schools closed since last Thursday. But what you might not know is that rank-and-file teachers rejected the deal as too tentative. And with the Republican-controlled State Senate dragging its feet on a bill incorporating the deal, the strike has continued and will apparently drag on into next week.
The whole saga may seem a little strange to people accustomed to strikes in other places. West Virginia’s public employees have no collective bargaining rights. So the only way to secure pay raises and better benefits is to lobby the legislature. Since the deal union leaders cut with Justice was not a labor contract or a law, there was really nothing to submit to members for a vote; instead, they voted with their feet to stay on strike.
The lower chamber of the legislature quickly approved a 5 percent pay raise for teachers (and a 3 percent raise for other school employees). That and a temporary freeze in health insurance premiums the governor announced earlier (along with the appointment of a task force to create a permanent solution to rising insurance costs for teachers) appeared initially to be enough to end the strike. But the State Senate, whose president, Mitch Carmichael, has expressed doubts that the stay can afford the pay raise the governor agreed to, has yet to schedule a vote on the raise, despite the watchful presence of many striking teachers in the Capitol. The delays have not exactly improved the atmosphere of trust in the negotiations, since Justice does not seem to be able to deliver on his promises.
The legislature will be in session over the weekend, so movement remains possible before the school week begins on Monday. But battle-lines could soon harden, as a local media report indicated:
“As for how long this strike will last - most teachers I ask say - as long as it takes,” said Mark Curtis, 13 News Chief Political Reporter.
This state with its colorful history of labor strife – though mostly in the now-declining mines – could yet provide some surprises as Republican legislators feel the heat. As the president of the United Mine Workers told protesting teachers in Charleston: “This is not really a strik …. “This is when the good people of West Virginia take back their state.”