It was a long day at the West Virginia state capitol of Charleston.
When I arrived at 8am, there was already lines on either side of the capitol building with over one hundred people waiting to go through security. Many people had already been there for an hour. Once I got into the building, it would be another 3 hours until session even began.
The teachers of West Virginia, emboldened by national support and the attempted trickery of a handful of their representatives to cut their already paltry pay increase from the promised five percent to four percent, extended their strike one more day.
And it paid off! Because of their brave, 9-day strike, West Virginia teachers secured their 5 percent raise for themselves and their colleagues in the public education system.
The change from a five percent pay increase to four percent was attributed to a proofreading issue… Something that the teachers found darkly humorous. And it showed in many of their signs.
It wasn’t just teachers that showed up in the capitol building on Monday, but kids too.
I talked to the daughter of one striking teacher, who, unlike many kids might at her age, understood the importance of teachers being trained for the job they do and paid accordingly.
“I want teachers that are qualified to teach me so I can grow up to be a surgeon.” She also didn’t care about having the day off like all public school kids have for the last couple of days due to the strike. “I don’t care if I have the day off, because I want my mom and all the teachers to get what they deserve.”
Congrats to the teachers on getting the pay hike they deserve. I'll have my story on Monday's strike at @NationofChange soon. For now listen to the wisdom of a child striker. #55Strong #55Union #WestVirginiaTeachersStrike pic.twitter.com/p2z6Lg19rc
— Zach D Roberts (@zdroberts) March 6, 2018
National Education Association (NEA) President, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, cheered on the crowds: “Please let your voices continue to ring, you are giving hope to educators and to students and to families all over this country.”
Afterwards she spoke to NationofChange in the hallway outside, where thousands of educators and allies continued to cheer and chant:
“You know some people would say that this is ‘like crazy.’ It’s not, there’s nothing more reasonable than what these thousands and thousands of educators are doing here today. They are worried about what’s happening to public schools, they’re worried about the fact that they can no longer recruit teachers, they have all kind of long term subs because they pay us so little.”
Garcia wasn’t exaggerating. As CNN reported yesterday, West Virginia teachers are paid anywhere from 24-35 percent less than the national average. They are 48th in the nation when it comes to teacher pay. Even with the tentatively won 5 percent average hike, their insurance premiums will be increasing dramatically too, as many of the teachers complained to me during the rally at the state capitol.
Even with these complaints, the teachers were positive. Coming from a woman with what I’d say is one of the toughest jobs in America, a 7th Grade English teacher, Crissy Cantley, was already looking beyond today’s strike:
“I think we’ve started a monumental movement, all 55 counties are on board, our superintendents are backing us… and this is an unusual state. Usually it’s not positive coming from here. This is an amazing thing to see all these people coming from all over.”
The support didn’t just come from other unions and local support – the United Educators of San Francisco sent dozens and dozens of pizzas to the strikers in solidarity. Even the local Dominoes delivery driver that I talked with was trying to figure out ways that he could get discounted pizzas to the teachers.
The strike, and now victory, however small, has emboldened at least one states’ teachers union to plan their own fight for a better wage: Oklahoma, which is right behind West Virginia in teacher pay at number 49 in the nation, has announced an April state-wide strike. That would land right in the middle of the state’s standardized testing.
West Virginia’s fight isn’t over though.
Mitch Carmichael, the Senate President, a man who was the focus of many of the strikers’ signs and chants, including my favorite, a Rhianna inspired, “Mitch better have my money,” has already threatened that the 5% raise is going to come from somewhere.
The New York Times reported that “Mr. Carmichael said it would probably lead to painful cuts in other parts of the state budget; another Republican senator, Craig Blair, said in a conference committee that Medicaid would be among the areas cut.
‘These things come at a cost,’ Mr. Carmichael said.”