The workers of West Virginia, who once waged the largest labor uprising in American history a century ago, are once again reminding both the American people and the oligarchy that runs this nation of how effective strikes can be.
Every teacher and school service worker from all fifty-five counties of West Virginia – some 33,000 people – have been on strike all week, demanding the better pay that they deserve and better healthcare from the tight-fisted state.
Yesterday, union leaders succeeded in wrangling a 5% pay increase from the Republican-controlled state government in an attempt to mollify the furious strikers, but the rank and file still aren’t satisfied, refusing to give up until they win both a pay raise and fixes to the state health insurance plan.
“The No. 1 thing was we needed a permanent fix to PEIA. It wasn’t about the money at all. It was about the insurance fix” said teacher Lori Hausvater, to CNN.
While the state promised to set up a “task force” to investigate how to bring down insurance costs and to freeze the high premiums for the state health insurance fund, the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA), teachers are refusing to accept vague promises. They rightfully are concerned that rising premiums will wipe out their raises – and don’t trust their legislators any further than they could throw them.
The decision to continue the strike is a sharp rebuke to both the state government and to union leaders, who agreed to the pay raise deal without informing the workers of the details.
Teacher Katie Endicott described the scene in the West Virginia capitol building after the deal was announced to the New York Times, explaining why the deal wasn’t enough and why they had to go back to the picket lines.
Initially, a lot of people around me were very happy, because we thought we won. I was excited. And then the union leaders came out and talked to us and we realized really quickly we did not win anything. The crowd turned very angry very quickly. Just because the governor suggests a 5 percent pay raise doesn’t mean it’s going through.
Now they’re saying you get 5 percent and well P.E.I.A. [the public insurance offered to teachers and state employees] is still frozen. At that point the crowd starts chanting, “A freeze is not a fix.” Everybody was very angry, very angry that we were told to go back to the classroom when we felt like had not achieved what we set out to achieve.
Our county said we would not be returning to the classroom. We did not want to go back with a promise. We wanted it signed, sealed and delivered. We wanted it to be fulfilled, not just empty words. We knew that if we went back and there was not details of a plan and a true commitment, then we could easily lose everything.
West Virginian teachers are some of the lowest paid educators in the nation – their salaries are the 48th lowest, in fact, averaging at $44,420 for middle school teachers – while the energy barons that run the state like their personal fiefdom reap in millions off of the resources that should rightfully belong to the public.
Democrat Richard Ojeda, current state Senator and candidate for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional district, saw his bill to levy a tax on corporate natural gas profits to pay for teachers’ healthcare immediately tabled by those beholden to the energy oligarchs, prompting a fresh round of outrage from those on strike.
.@Ojeda4congress now up speaking to the Senate. Calls for a tax on natural gas. Points to his bill that has been tabled, would bring in $78 million in revenue to go to payraises and PEIA. "So, why can we not do that?" Goes on to say gas companies are controlling this.
— Dave Mistich (@davemistich) March 1, 2018
The servants of the energy barons, unfortunately, work for both parties. A major reason the government can’t seem to find the money to pay their teachers a respectable salary is because the “Democratic” majority that passed corporate tax cuts a decade ago under “Democratic” Governor Joe Manchin, stripping the state of $220 million in revenue and creating no jobs.
In the meantime, the strikers in West Virginia show no sign of giving up anytime soon – and the Democratic Party needs to take note. The decision to abandon the workers of America in order to cater to the wealthy donor class has played a huge role in not only the humiliating and entirely preventable 2016 defeat but also in the ceding of the majority of state houses, governorships, and state Senates across the country to the Republican Party.
The working people of America have been abused and ignored by a political system that caters only to the rich for far too long – and the teachers of West Virginia just reminded the nation that the political power of American labor is far from dead.