Dignity and respect are the root cause of every serious labor struggle. This was certainly the case in West Virginia’s unprecedented nine-day statewide education strike. When the workers won this past Tuesday, singing and dancing erupted among the thousands who packed the state capitol. Their final chant before leaving the building was, “Who made history? We made history!”
The strike produced a string of significant victories, not all of which are immediately tangible. Perhaps most significantly, it restored the dignity of 34,000 workers, rebuilding the pride of West Virginia’s working class and reinforcing one hell of a union that will carry the struggle forward.
This point seemed lost on much of the media that covered the strike. No matter how many times workers talked about defending public education and expanding quality schools, the press focused on just two issues: health insurance and a raise. But Wendy Peters, the president of the Raleigh affiliate of the West Virginia Education Association, says, “Wages and health benefits were almost a distraction. They are important, but there were five major stances we took, and we won all five.”
These included defeating an expansion of charter schools, killing a proposal to eliminate seniority, and scuttling a paycheck-protection bill (aimed at weakening unions by taking away their right to deduct union dues through payroll collection), as well as a mechanism to fix the health-insurance crisis and a raise big enough to matter.
According to Peters, “Each one of the bills that would undermine the education of our kids by attacking teachers were being voted on in committees and making their way to passage. We were getting pounded on here by a majority of Republicans in both houses.”
Peters, who has a master’s degree and years of experience, adds, “Their bill on seniority would have let them replace me with someone unqualified to give a good education to our kids. I have a 5-year-old son and I am fighting for him to get a quality education.”
Respect and dignity were also front and center in the health-insurance issue. In the 2017 legislative session, the state legislature passed SB 221, which shrank the board that governed the Public Employees Insurance Agency from 10 to eight members and removed a requirement that organized labor have a seat on the board. Later that year, the board proposed the implementation of Go365, an app that requires workers to wear devices like FitBit that submit tracking data. Workers that refused would face increased health-care costs. Peters notes, “It was a complete, total invasion of our privacy.”
In addition, health insurance rates would have been based on a new calculation that based premiums on total family income, not an individual worker’s income. “By adding my husband, I was facing a $200-a-month increase,” says Peters, “so when Governor Jim Justice offered a 1 percent pay raise in January, people had had enough.” The indignities kept rolling in, including the governor’s calling teachers “dumb bunnies” at a town hall in Logan County in early February.