Senate leadership had suggested using revenue that would be set aside for a pay raise to shore up the public employees’ much-criticized health insurance plan. But striking teachers are adamant that they want both matters addressed.
The teachers disregarded their own union leaders’ advice to return to work earlier this week, opting instead for a thunderous showdown with members of the state’s increasingly conservative leadership. The direction in the next few days is anyone’s guess.
“If there’s no deal,” said Katrina Minney, 44, a high school English teacher in Kanawha County, “we’re not going back.”
Frustration at the state of pay and health insurance — in addition to proposed changes to rules governing hiring, firing and the payment of union dues — had been building for a while.
Smaller walkouts began in early February, organized by the sons and daughters of coal miners who had stood on the picket lines themselves.
“When I was in diapers, he was involved in a mine strike,” Justin Endicott, 34, a fourth-grade teacher in Mingo County, said of his father.
“Southern West Virginia’s often forgotten, and if we were not loud, we would be completely forgotten,” said Mr. Endicott, who traveled to Charleston on Feb. 2 with teachers from neighboring counties to take part in the first of the school walkouts.
It is not a surprise to anyone here that the first teacher strikes came out of coal country. This was the battlefield of the mine wars, a series of deadly battles in the early 20th century between coal miners and armies of law enforcement and company-hired soldiers. Among the people who fought in these wars was the great-grandfather of Brandon Wolford, a major organizer of the strikers in Mingo County.
In 1920, thousands of miners faced off in the five-day Battle of Blair Mountain against armed strikebreakers and government forces in one of the largest labor uprisings in American history.
“I think it’s part of the culture,” said David Haney, the executive director of the West Virginia Education Association, a teacher’s union. “They grew up in a culture of understanding people standing up to their employers to some degree when things go wrong.”
Though the southern counties were first to walk out, talk of action had been percolating across West Virginia, ever since the state proposed in November new rules for the state employees’ health plan.
Among the new rules was a plan to consider the income of both spouses in the house if both were covered by the insurance plan, as opposed to just the employee, in setting deductibles and premiums. For families with both spouses working, or teachers supplementing their income with second or even third jobs, the change would mean cost increases.
In a Facebook group for public employees, which was set up in the fall by Jay O’Neal, a seventh-grade English teacher in Charleston, frustration steadily grew.
People were rankled also to learn about Go365, an app they were supposed to use to monitor their health, which many found punitive and invasive. They were particularly incensed when the Republican governor, James C. Justice, announced in his state of the state address that he was proposing a long-awaited pay raise for state employees: 1 percent a year.
In early January, Mr. O’Neal said, someone in the Facebook group prompted a frenzy by asking when everyone was going to strike.
Then, State Senator Richard Ojeda, a Democrat, seemed to take up the cause.
“We are sitting on a powder keg,” said Mr. Ojeda, who has since become such a hero among striking school employees that his image appears on posters and T-shirts. “If you think teachers across this state are not saying the s-word, you are wrong.”
In late January, hundreds of Mingo County school employees held a meeting in an event hall in the tiny town of Delbarton, one of the first of similar meetings that would take place across the state.
Teachers who had walked out in the teachers’ strike of 1990 said the time had come again. In the next few days, school employees voted, overwhelmingly, to walk out.
On Feb. 2, a day the protesting teachers now call “Fed-Up Friday,” the staff members of schools in several southern West Virginia counties stayed out of work.
“They live-streamed when they were in the Capitol that day and everybody was watching it when they were on their planning periods,” said Mr. O’Neal, whose Facebook group, though set to be private, now has some 24,000 members. “If they had not walked out that day I don’t think any of this would have happened.”
The next few weeks moved quickly. Union leaders met on Feb. 11 to authorize statewide action if necessary. More counties rallied at the Capitol for another daylong walkout on Feb. 16, but felt like they had made little progress. The next day, unions announced they would begin a statewide work stoppage on Feb. 22.
A promise to freeze their insurance rates and the passing of a 2 percent raise did nothing to dissuade the teachers from walking off the job.
The turning point in the strike came on Tuesday of this week, when Mr. Justice, desperate to get teachers back to school, announced he could find the money to give teachers a 5 percent raise. Union leaders said the deal was enough to get teachers back to class. Immediately they were proven wrong.
Teachers said a promise was not enough, and poured back into the Capitol, crying, “We got sold out.”
“It was like we couldn’t trust what was going on,” said Brandy Conrad, a teacher from Boone County. “We want the promises that we were issued to be fulfilled.”
By Friday, a task force to address health insurance was partially appointed by the governor. The main sticking point seemed to be the 5 percent pay raise, the fate of which rested with the Senate.
So the strike goes on, in a showing of statewide unity that even Donnie Ellis, the retired coal miner here in Mingo, has found to be impressive. But he knows how these things go.
“It’s all fun and games in the early stages but it’s going to get serious,” he said, sitting in a McDonald’s in Gilbert as his wife joined thousands of other teachers in deafening chants in the State Capitol, 80 miles north. “You go over the line, you’ve got to finish it.”
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