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West Virginia Teachers Strike Inspires Talk of Protest in Other States

The success of the statewide walkout, which ended on Wednesday, could spur similar movements across the country at a time when the fate of unions is in the Supreme Court's hands.

West Virginia Teachers Walkou
Amy Pricer, a Social Studies Teacher at Keyser High School, holds a sign at a teacher rally at the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, W.Va.
(AP Photo/Tyler Evert)
Last Updated March 9 at 11:25 a.m. EST

West Virginia’s teachers are back in class today after Gov. Jim Justice approved 5 percent pay raises for the state’s public employees, ending a nearly two-week-long strike.

The teachers received everything they asked for, including a 16-month freeze on health premiums.

Before the deal, spiking health care costs and low pay were drivers of deep discontent among West Virginia teachers, who are among the lowest-paid in the nation, ranking 48th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Now, the success of the movement has led teachers in other states -- including Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona -- to consider taking action of their own. Teachers in these states are grappling with reduced pensions, budget cuts and decreased state funding -- similar conditions that existed in West Virginia before the strike.

“[Workers] don’t have other ways to express their concerns, so other states could soon look like this," says David Madland, a senior fellow at the progressive Center for American Progress. 

The West Virginia strike is one of the widest-reaching and most successful in recent memory. Every school in all 55 counties of the state shut down for nine consecutive instructional days, and crowds of demonstrators at the Capitol kept growing.

When the union reached an initial deal with the governor last week and encouraged teachers to go back to school, they refused to do so before the deal was signed by the legislature, engaging in a wildcat strike that would last for another four days.

“People thought [support] would wane, but it actually grew stronger every day,” says Kym Randolph, communications director for the West Virginia Education Association, the teachers' union.

Randolph says the crowds at the Capitol were larger on Monday than they’d ever been -- even on the third day of the wildcat strike.

“We had parent support, we had community support, and our superintendents were very forgiving,” she says.

The triumph has excited labor advocates across the country but especially in Oklahoma, where schools are the most poorly funded in the country.

In Oklahoma, the base salary for educators is the lowest in the country and hasn’t been raised in nearly a decade. Poor pay has led to an exodus of teachers to nearby states like Texas.

“In my daughter’s history class, they have a set of 23 textbooks that look as though they would fall apart if you picked them up, so students can’t even take them home,” says Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA). “One of our members told us that she had 59 students in a senior English class.”

In the last few days of the West Virginia walkout, talk of a strike had been building on Oklahoma teacher social media groups. A teacher named Alberto Morejon created a Facebook page called “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout -- The Time Is Now!,” which now has more than 46,000 members.

On Thursday, the OEA announced that it would strike on April 2 if their demands aren’t met. The organization will be asking for a $10,000 raise for teachers.

Some teachers, though, aren’t willing to wait. Educators from about a dozen Oklahoma schools have begun organizing their own unsanctioned walkout, fearing that the union’s plans won’t be to their liking.

Priest says she hopes the teachers can present a unified front like those in West Virginia.

In both states, striking is technically illegal for public employees, making a unified front even more valuable. (For this same reason, Priest prefers to use the word “walkout.”) West Virginia workers do not have collective bargaining rights, meaning their pay increases must be passed by the legislature.

Oklahoma does allow collective bargaining, but state funding to schools is so low that counties cannot come up with the money for a pay increase, says Priest.

In Arizona, thousands of staff members showed up to school on Wednesday wearing red as a show of anger at a suggested 1 percent pay increase, which does not even keep up with inflation. It’s the first step in a movement that could lead to a statewide strike.

After the head of the Arizona Education Association, Joe Thomas, tweeted about the West Virginia strike, educators began replying, calling for immediate action and creating hashtags to track the conversation, including #AZWhatsThePlan and #RedforEd.

I am nervous to leave it up to the voters in Az to vote them out. What will we do if most of us just get the 1% raise? It’s not enough to keep up with rising costs of rent. It will leave us even further behind, for yet another year. — Deirdre Cronin (@azdedo) February 28, 2018
Most of my colleagues that I have spoken with are supportive of a strike- especially with the current momentum and WV's success. Several have been talking about it for months (even years) now, as well. What are your thoughts? — Noah Karvelis (@Noah__Karvelis) February 28, 2018
In Kentucky, discontent over pay and pensions has also spurred some talk of action, though there are no concrete plans to strike and the conversations are less developed than in Oklahoma or Arizona.

The spread of statewide teacher strikes comes at a time when the power of unions is likely to be severely dampened by the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices are widely expected to allow public-sector workers to opt out of paying union fees, which could diminish their financial resources.

If that is the case, Madland, from the Center for American Progress, expects the ruling to actually lead to more protests and walkouts.

“When workers don’t have the ability to collectively bargain to get what they want, they have no other option but to strike,” he says.

Natalie previously covered immigrant communities and environmental justice as a bilingual reporter at CityLab and CityLab Latino. She hails from the Los Angeles area and graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in English literature.
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