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.