PUTNAM COUNTY, W.Va. — “I think this will start a movement across the country of working people rising up,” Phillip Eastep, a steelworker in Huntington, told Socialist Workers Party members when we joined him picketing with school bus workers outside the Hurricane bus depot here March 6. “This is the strongest rank-and-file movement I’ve seen in my 10 years in the union. I hope this makes every union in West Virginia stronger.”
Later in the day, school workers on the picket line learned they had won. As thousands of teachers and school workers filled the Capitol in Charleston, the legislature voted up a 5 percent raise — not just for them, but for all state employees — and agreed to the workers’ demand to set up a task force to find ways to fund their health care. The strike inspired workers across the state and nationwide and forced the rulers to back down.
Eastep, a member of United Steelworkers Local 40, had come directly from getting off work to join the picket line. He said he has a special reason to join the workers at this depot.
“She drove my school bus when I was a kid,” he said, pointing to one of the pickets, Marsha Armstead, a driver with 21 years seniority. “They deserve more than what they get, all of them.”
“Our local contract is coming up this fall,” he said, “and I hope they set the example for us to stand up and fight.”
Workers support and are inspired by the strike. Drivers passing by honk and wave, a man shows up with donuts. Workers have come by with pizza, fruit and coffee.
“What we’re seeing is a movement in the U.S. Not just a labor movement,” Sam Brunett, an art teacher at Morgantown High School, told the Associated Press. “It’s a class of people rising up.”
This was the ninth day of the walkout. It’s the first strike by school workers in the state since 1990, the first ever coordinated across all 55 school districts and first time all three unions representing them have gone out together.
In West Virginia the state legislature sets the wages and benefits for all state employees and workers in the public school system. Gov. James Justice had originally proposed a 1 percent pay increase each year for five years. This wouldn’t even cover the raise in health premiums he proposed at the same time. Teachers’ pay in West Virginia ranks 48th lowest of the 50 states.
School workers started mobilizing and preparing for a walkout. The legislature responded by voting to freeze the health premiums and up the wage increase for the first year to 2 percent. The members of the three unions voted and overwhelmingly rejected this deal. On Feb. 22 they walked out.
In addition to picket lines outside schools and bus depots, thousands of union members and their supporters gathered outside and inside the state Capitol every school day. Over 5,000 poured inside March 5, forcing state officials to lock the doors for an hour.
After meeting with union officials Feb. 27, Justice announced they had reached a deal for a 5 percent raise the first year, for a task force on health care, and said the unions agreed that schools would reopen two days later.
“I was outside the Capitol, when I heard about this,” a bus mechanic picketing by the depot here said. “I was furious and I used language you should never use. I had to apologize to a woman standing next to me. They’re trying to bust the union, that’s how I saw it. I knew we had to stay out. If you start something you see it through.”
Many workers expressed anger at the deal and frustration that union officials had agreed to call off the strike even though the legislature hadn’t voted to accept it. They said they just didn’t trust the elected officials.
“We went back and voted again,” said Jan Henson, a teacher and one of the pickets outside Morning View Elementary School a couple miles down the road. “‘No’ it was. So we stayed out.”
Henson said the vast majority of people going by the picket are supportive, but some give them thumbs down or roll down their windows and yell, “Go back to work.”
Fight popular in working class
They’ve gotten support from coal miners across the state. Many strikers wore red bandannas, a symbol of past pitched battles against mine bosses and state cops.
“People are starting to get angrier and remember our history, remember our roots,” Jenny Craig, a middle school special education teacher in Triadelphia, in coal country, told the press.
Most school workers say health care is the biggest issue. “We need a fix, not a freeze” was one common chant.
But what a “fix” would look like, and whether it’s possible under capitalism, is a debate among workers on the picket lines. Some point to the state-financed health system in Canada as a model, some propose taxing shale oil exploration, others put forward various schemes to raise money for the state budget expenses to cover health insurance.
“I agree that we need health care and not health insurance,” Henson said. “I’m not sure how we can fix it, but I know it has to be fixed. So we’ll just have to see.”
During the strike, Henson volunteered at the nearby Church of the Nazarene, preparing and distributing food to kids who depend on their school meals. Food donations came from stores, farmers, restaurants, strikers and other workers. Dozens of volunteers — mainly teachers and students — pack bread, vegetables, fruit, drinks and snacks. Similar operations were organized in every county across the state and have been important in building support for the strike.
A car stops and the driver tells us that the state Senate has just approved the 5 percent wage raise and health coverage task force.
Senators had originally rejected the Feb. 27 deal between the governor and the unions, saying the state couldn’t afford it. The pressure from the continuing strike changed their minds.
More drivers stop by to tell us the deal passed unanimously in both houses of the legislature. “For some reason, they suddenly found the money,” one of them said. “This was going places they don’t want it to go.”
Teachers and school workers went back to work March 7.
The 41,000 teachers in Oklahoma face the same setup as here — prohibited by state law from negotiating contracts and the state legislature sets wages and benefits. They haven’t had a raise in 10 years and pay ranks at the bottom of the 50 states.
They say they’re inspired by what happened here and are threatening to strike in April. One teacher set up a Facebook site titled “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout — The Time Is Now!” In less than a week, 36,000 people joined up.