Despite a tentative pay deal announced Tuesday designed to end the nearly week-long strike, all West Virginia public schools remain closed today, canceling classes for 277,000 public-school students across all 55 counties. The strikers are demanding higher pay and protection from rising insurance premiums. Currently, West Virginia ranks 48th in the country for teacher pay, with teachers earning about $45,000 per year on average—more than $10,000 below the national average. The deal Governor Jim Justice announced on Tuesday consisted of a 3 percent raise this year, with those who work in education receiving a 5 percent increase—up from the 2 percent increase (followed by a 1 percent increase over the next two years) that Justice signed into law on February 21. However, the agreement did not address the employees’ insurance demands, and it remains to be seen whether West Virginia’s legislature will approve the increase.
In the days leading up to the strike, a group of West Virginia high school students formed a solidarity group, #SecureOurFuture. The group galvanized students in 12 counties to wear purple to school in a show of support for their teachers and to circulate images of the movement using the #SecureOurFuture hashtag. Last week, The Nation reposted the students’ open letter to West Virginia’s citizens. We talk with them here about their organizing so far and what’s next for the movement. Their answers came to us yesterday after the announcement of an agreement, which was expected to result in the reopening of schools today, and thus do not reflect the latest developments in this fast moving story.
Sophie Kasakove: What do you think about the decision to end the strike? How optimistic are you that the teachers’ remaining demands will be met?
#SecureOurFuture organizers: We are glad the strike has ended because it will allow students that depend on free and reduced lunch to have regular access to meals and families to once again have reliable childcare. However, we are pessimistic about whether or not the promises that the governor made in his press conference last night will be met, and several of the primary catalysts for the strike remain unaddressed. We understand that some teachers may continue to strike, and we will support them in doing so until a more concrete solution is put in place.
Though the 5 percent raise promised to teachers this year would be extraordinarily beneficial, it is also being criticized as a smokescreen. Especially on a national level, the issue has been presented more often as one of pay than of benefits. The Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) plans to raise premiums drastically this year, and that was the primary cause of the initial protests. While it’s been frozen for 16 months, unions and teachers have maintained (as we students also believe) that a freeze is not a fix—it allows our legislators to simply put off the problem until a non-election year. In his statement last night, Governor Justice said that he would be convening a task force to address finding long-term funding sources for PEIA, so, as yet, there is no action addressing the primary cause of the work stoppage.
The most commonly suggested funding source is raising the severance tax on natural gas. At a town hall on Monday, Governor Justice stated that he would veto the current co-tenancy bill unless it was connected to a severance tax raise, but at last night’s press conference he stated he would not veto co-tenancy or make it contingent on a severance tax hike. There are many issues to unpack here, primarily that co-tenancy is unpopular in West Virginia, a state with a history of abuse at the hands of major corporations and extractive industry. Co-tenancy allows for development of a tract of land with consent of only 75 percent of the owners of the tract, a plan that critics say is not in line with protecting the property and mineral rights of individuals. Governor Justice has been accused of trying to get it passed by attaching it to a popular issue, an approach that went over extremely poorly. It’s worth noting that he also made promises about the raises and PEIA fixes without consulting the leadership of the House or the Senate, or introducing any relevant legislation. Therefore, we and many teaches have extraordinarily little faith in the promises made to us by the governor. Despite the fact that union leaders at the press conference reserved the right to “call their people back out,” many teachers and other public employees are expressing feelings of betrayal at the hands of union leaders because a member vote was not held before a discontinuation to the strike was announced. We do not have faith in the government of the state of West Virginia.
SK: According to an article in the Charleston Gazette-Mail last week, 18 schools across the state participated in the “purple-out.” What was the process of organizing like? How did you reach students at so many different schools?
#SecureOurFuture: Our original idea was to have a purple-out in solidarity with Capital High School employees, but we realized that many students around the state were also looking for a way to show support for the work stoppage. Within our own school, the process of spreading the word was quick, but social media is what truly helped to circulate our message around the state. Many of us are involved with student-leadership organizations, and having that network of students engaged in their communities is what really encouraged the statewide movement. The hashtag that we created (#SecureOurFuture) also helped us to keep track of which schools planned to participate and which schools we needed to reach out to.
SK: What are the main goals of #SecureOurFuture? How optimistic do you feel about achieving these goals?
#SecureOurFuture: Initially, our goal was simply to show support, but after the success of our purple-out we saw the interest for something bigger. We want to not only make sure our voices are heard as the future of the state but also as a part of today’s youngest voting bloc. We want to show that we understand what is happening right now and demonstrate that to our legislators. We have opened the door for the possibility of having our voices heard concerning other issues that affect students. We’ve been able to garner attention from the general public, but we still feel largely ignored by our representatives. We reached out to at least a dozen of our representatives about the issue and ongoing legislation regarding teachers’ issues and work stoppage but received only a single one-line response.
SK: What has the response to your letter been like? Has there been any pushback from other students or are students mostly supportive of the strike?
#SecureOurFuture: We’ve received a lot of support from our community, largely from current and former teachers who have expressed their gratitude for our efforts. One of our main goals was to have a cohesive message that could represent every West Virginia student, so many students have reacted positively to our movement. However, we have also encountered a lot of people who assume we are uneducated on the issues or that our involvement follows encouragement by our teachers, rather than our own personal experiences and views.
SK: What has it been like to be students in West Virginia during this time?
#SecureOurFuture: As students, we have been able to witness the people who stand in front of us every day stand unified with one another and with other public employees to advocate for one cause. We as students are taking this opportunity to participate in our government at a scale many of us have never experienced before.
SK: How have the challenges facing your teachers affected your education? Were you aware of your teachers’ grievances before the strike?
#SecureOurFuture: Public-employee compensation has been a hot-button issue in our legislature for years, so it has been at the forefront of our minds. It’s something that has been a constant concern throughout our education, but it’s never really had the spotlight until now. In recent weeks as our teachers became more concerned, we became more aware; at Capital our teachers were not allowed to discuss the strike with us, so many of us took the initiative ourselves to learn more about the issues.
SK: What are the next steps? I see you’re working on distributing information to the schools involved in the purple-out about how to contact their representatives—could you share what you’re hoping will come out of that, and any other ways you’re planning to continue to support your teachers?
#SecureOurFuture: We will continue to use the relationships that we have created to spread information about both new developments concerning teachers compensation and other issues that students are passionate about. We are hoping that our engagement and empowerment will encourage legislators to take us seriously and combat disenfranchisement of the youth in West Virginia. We want to show that, even though it can be frustrating, contacting your representatives and talking to them about the issues that you care about can make a difference.
This story is not over, and it is our hope that the national attention the strike has garnered will not dissipate as our school employees respond to a call back to the classroom, because the underlying issues remain unaddressed. The current halt to the work stoppage stands only as strong as the resolve of our legislators.