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West Virginia Teachers Strike Kills Anti-Union Bill

CHARLESTON, W. Va.—A statewide two-day strike by teachers and support staff ended early in the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 20, after the state House allowed an omnibus education bill vehemently opposed by school unions to expire.

W. Virginia teachers flexed their muscles again – and won.

Teachers had walked out the day before, after the state Senate narrowly passed the measure, Senate Bill 451. The bill would have raised their salaries by 5%, but also eliminated seniority for laid-off teachers, established the first charter schools in the state, enabled some parents to pay private-school tuition with public funds, and required union members to “opt in” every year to have dues deducted from their paychecks. 

 “It has been a wild ride over the last couple of days, but we can officially say that SB 451 is dead!” the West Virginia Education Association exulted on its Website.

“The House killed the Senate bill, and it should stay dead,” American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia President Fred Albert said in a statement.

The House voted to table the legislation indefinitely on Feb. 19, a few hours after the strike began. That “essentially killed the bill,” AFT-WV spokesperson Jennifer Wood told LaborPress. But teachers stayed out for a second day on what she called the “very minute chance” that a procedural motion could revive it.

“There’s some trust issues from last year,” she explained.

This is what the power of educators’ voices looks like. More than 30,000 educators proudly and loudly stood up to state senators who wanted to retaliate for last year’s walkout with so-called reforms that would have hurt public education.– Fred Albert, president, AFT-West Virginia 

“This is what the power of educators’ voices looks like,” Albert said. “More than 30,000 educators proudly and loudly stood up to state senators who wanted to retaliate for last year’s walkout with so-called reforms that would have hurt public education. We want our kids and their families to have strong, well-funded public schools, not charters and other privatized options that take away funding from public education.”

The House and Senate had previously passed different versions of the measure. The House version would have limited the number of charter schools to two, which would have had to have been approved by both parents and staff in the schools they would share space with, and it deleted most of the provisions the unions objected to. But the Senate on Feb. 18 passed an amended version that restored most of those provisions, using a procedure that would have forced the House to vote yes or no without any further amendments.

The vote was 18-16, with no Democrats voting yes and two of the 20 Republicans voting no.

Like the nine-day walkout by West Virginia teachers and support staff last year, the action was technically a “work stoppage,” not a strike, Wood says. Schools in 54 of the state’s 55 counties canceled classes after the three school unions—AFT-WV, the WVEA, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association—announced their plans. That means teachers and staff will still get paid for the two days, but will have to make them up at the end of the school year.

The one exception was Putnam County, a rural area between the cities of Charleston and Huntington. There, schools stayed open, so teachers and staff who didn’t go in to work will be docked two days pay for being on strike and will not accrue seniority credit, says Wood. But only about 10% of the district’s students showed up on Feb. 19 and 3% on the strike’s second day, according to WSAZ-TV in Huntington.

Putnam County is in the district of Senate President Mitch Carmichael, the bill’s lead supporter, who raged against the unions on Twitter. “After years of ruining our state’s public education system, the teacher union bosses have finally lost their grip on the Legislature and seemingly have lost their grip on reality,” he wrote Feb. 20. “Locking our students out of schools because the teachers union bosses have lost is an embarrassment for our state.”

Meanwhile, the House Finance Committee on Feb. 20 approved a bill backed by Gov. Jim Justice that would raise pay for all state employees, including teachers and school staff, by 5%. The unions expect the Senate to take it up in the next few days.

That may create some complications. “Mitch Carmichael has been making comments that he intends to load everything from SB 451 into another bill, such as the pay bill,” the WVEA posted on its Web site. However, it added that “while he may very well try to do that in the Senate, House members from both sides of the aisle have assured us that they will not let a bill like that pass. So again, the bill would die but the Governor has previously stated that if it is not passed during the session, he will call a special session to pass the pay raise bill.”

“We’ve dealt with these shenanigans for a while,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement, “but what has changed is that we are willing to engage in direct action as a last resort.”

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