More than 30,000 teachers, bus drivers, janitors, cooks and other school workers shut down all the schools across West Virginia Feb. 19 and 20 to protest an education “reform” bill. The measure, submitted by State Senate President Mitch Carmichael, included attacks on both union rights and public education.
The walkout began nearly a year to the day that the school workers shut down every school in the state last year, inspiring other school workers across the country to fight for better wages and working conditions.
Officials in Putnam County were the only ones in the state’s 55 counties to try to keep schools open. That meant that school workers there would be docked pay for every day on strike. Teachers from other counties flocked to Putnam to bolster the picket lines.
“We want to make this 55 strong, not 54 strong, because we’re all 55 united here,” Parry Casto, a teacher from Cabell County, told WOWK-TV outside Hurricane High School in Putnam County Feb. 19. “And we’ll stay here as along as it takes.”
Not a single school bus in Putnam County moved and only a handful of students showed up for class.
Hundreds of teachers from around the state descended on the Capitol in Charleston later in the day, chanting “Kill the bill,” as the House of Delegates debated the measure that had just been rammed through the state Senate.
United Mine Workers union President Cecil Roberts and other mineworkers joined the picket line at Capital High School in Charleston Feb. 19.
The bill included a pay hike for school workers and funding for additional school personnel promised during last year’s strike. But it also included provisions eliminating seniority, increasing class size, widening pay differences between teachers depending on “expertise,” establishing charter schools in West Virginia for the first time, and setting up so-called education savings accounts to be used to pay for home schooling or private schools.
The proposed legislation also included measures aimed at undercutting the unions and school workers strikes.
If passed, school workers would have gotten a 5 percent pay raise. “We could say yes to this immediately and we could have our raise, but it’s not that,” Bridgeport prekindergarten teacher Jessica Jones told WVnews.com.
West Virginia is one of the states with the lowest funding for schools and wages. That means dilapidated classrooms, teachers and other school workers forced to work two or three jobs, and overcrowded classrooms lacking sorely needed supplies.
Carmichael claims the goal of his “comprehensive education reforms” is to prepare students to more effectively “compete” for jobs.
The capitalist rulers and their representatives like Carmichael promote the illusion that “education” is a ticket out of low-paying jobs for the working class. But the reality is that education under capitalism is meant to churn out obedient workers who don’t need to know much to toil and increase the bosses’ profits. The rulers don’t see any reason to shell out more for learning for working people.
Bill goes down to defeat
Midway through the first day of the strike, with hundreds of chanting teachers crammed into the House of Delegates gallery, the delegates voted to “suspend indefinitely” the bill in a bipartisan 53-45 vote. Twelve Republicans voted with Democrats to kill the bill.
Gov. Jim Justice told school workers immediately after the vote to “go back to work. Go back to work right now. Go back to work tomorrow.”
But the school workers said no. They weren’t going back until they were 100 percent sure the bill was dead. According to House rules, the legislators could reconsider within the next 24 hours.
“School workers have not forgotten the lesson of last year’s showdown,” special education teacher Brandon Wolford, told the Militant by phone from Mingo County while on his way to a rally. The county was a stronghold of the United Mine Workers union.
Previous struggles by “the miners and the UMW taught us something,” he said earlier. “Stand up for yourself. You have nothing to lose.”
Last year’s teachers strike in West Virginia was marked by lessons from decades of hard-fought labor battles by the miners. This gave it aspects of a broader social movement and large-scale working-class solidarity.