Teachers striking for better pay in the Trump stronghold of West Virginia have prompted a political showdown between GOP Gov. Jim Justice and legislative leaders from his own party, with public schools across the Mountain State closed Monday for an eighth school day.
Teachers in West Virginia, who are among the lowest paid in the nation, walked out statewide on Feb. 22. A tentative deal on a 5 percent pay raise engineered by Justice collapsed over the weekend in the GOP-controlled state Senate. On Monday, crowds of teachers, bus drivers and custodians towing signs and shouting slogans flooded the capital city of Charleston. The protests grew so intense that the state Capitol police had to discontinue allowing new visitors inside.
The turmoil comes in the first statewide strike since 1990 and as teachers also object to rising costs for health care coverage. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat facing a tough reelection in one of the nation's reddest states, on Monday called for an end to the standoff and blamed the state Senate for blowing up the compromise deal.
"Everyone else agrees on the deal to reopen our schools — a bipartisan coalition of educators, parents, Democrat and Republican House Legislators, and the Governor," Manchin said in a statement. "But for some reason, Senate Republicans are choosing to keep our schools closed and kids at home over one percent. West Virginia families deserve better."
So far, the striking teachers haven’t lost any pay because superintendents have closed schools each of day of the walkout and treated the lost days as they would snow days. The teachers have not faced legal consequences for striking, either, even though West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has called the walkouts an "illegal work stoppage."
Teachers have not had a pay raise since 2014 and earn $45,000 a year on average. Nearby states such as Maryland and Virginia pay their teachers much more, leading to a shortage of about 700 teachers in the state.
Justice, who switched to the Republican Party last year with President Donald Trump at his side, pleaded with Senate leaders on Monday to meet with him after the chamber on Saturday night rejected the agreement he'd forged with teachers union leaders.
“I am begging them to talk to me,” Justice told West Virginia MetroNews on a radio show. “I am begging them to talk to me. I’ll go up there. I’ll meet them at the 7-11. I’ll meet ’em in my office.”
Initially last week, Justice had chided the teachers after they balked at his first offer, a 2 percent raise he signed into law.
“You need to be back in school,” he told them.
But he seemingly changed his tune last Tuesday after sometimes hostile meetings with teachers in three West Virginia communities. He reached an agreement for a heftier pay raise with leaders from the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.
Instead of reopening schools in the state's 55 counties, however, the deal has led to more chaos.
While the House chamber approved the 5 percent raise, state Senate leaders instead insisted on only 4 percent in a bill passed Saturday night — arguing they are being fiscally prudent. Legislative leaders from the two chambers were expected to meet late Monday afternoon to try to resolve their differences.
The Republican state senators have said they want to be responsible, but that they also want to take steps to give all state employees a 4 percent raise — not just 5 percent for the teachers.
"There has been a stream of messages that I received that say, 'What about me?' And it's the other public employees that haven't had a raise in 12 years," Republican state Sen. Greg Boso said in a Senate Finance Committee meeting, according to WOWKTV.com.
State Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns said Monday the Senate Finance Committee has crunched the numbers and he believes 4 percent is what the state budget can handle. But Ferns, a Republican, did leave open the possibility that a compromise could be reached.
“We’re willing to take every available dollar that state government has that’s not going to an essential service and dedicating it towards public employees. Every single dollar,” Ferns said, according to West Virginia MetroNews. “So to whatever extent the House has suggestions of a compromise position that doesn’t cause us to risk blowing a hole in the budget, we’re open to that.”
Meanwhile, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, joined the strikers on Monday and said the teachers are targeting their anger now at GOP senators who rejected the 5 percent raise.
“We were stunned,” Eskelsen Garcia said, describing the reaction when Senate leaders balked at the agreement.
“It’s a political game being played by a handful of senators,” Eskelsen Garcia said.
Initially, rank-and-file teachers grumbled that the agreement doesn’t include a long-term fix to curtail rising health care costs. Instead, Justice said a task force would work to address problems associated with what’s known as the Public Employees Insurance Agency. The task force is scheduled to meet on March 13.
That means it’s not a given that the teachers would return to school even if the agreement giving them a 5 percent raise is signed into law.
Late last week, the state Senate president, Mitch Carmichael, said the state needed a more permanent revenue stream to bolster the health insurance program for public employees like teachers.
"It's easy to come in here and just vote for what people want, but that's not what the general citizens expect of West Virginia," Carmichael said, according to WSAZ. "That's what's been done around here for too long."
Justin Mauck, a middle school teacher in Martinsburg, said that as the walkout continues, he thinks more teachers are willing to accept that the task force could find a resolution on health care costs. He said he thinks teachers in his community will go back to school if the 5 percent pay raise is passed.
“Over time people have been accepting of that and have grown to an understanding that they are willing to let the task force take effect,” Mauck said.