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Teachers striking outside government building. Photo Courtesy of Summer McClintock

Lessons from West Virginia: West Virginia’s Teachers’ Strike Illustrates How Vital it is That We Stand Together

ETFO Voice

The West Virginia teachers’ and school personnel strike began on February 22, 2018 and lasted until March 7, 2018. The strike, called in response to anger among teachers and other school employees over low pay, high health care costs and policy changes many thought would be detrimental to the education system, involved roughly 20,000 teachers and public school employees and shut down schools in all 55 West Virginia counties. It affected some 250,000 students and inspired teachers in Oklahoma, Colorado and Arizona to take similar action.

Voice spoke with West Virginia Teachers’ Union organizer Summer McClintock about fighting back, building support for educators and working to take care of the community.

Voice: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the West Virginia teachers’ strike. What led up to it?

SUMMER: Up until 2018, there had only been one teacher strike in West Virginia in 1990. It had very similar grievances, but was mainly in response to teacher pay. It lasted 11 days. Since 1990, many teachers in West Virginia have endured lower pay than those in surrounding states because the insurance the state provided had always been affordable and effective. When the state decided to make drastic changes to the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), making insurance more expensive, accompanied by an offer of a pay raise of only one percent for five years, many felt the need to draw a line. The result of these changes would mean a decrease in already low overall pay. The pattern of nominal salary increases had been occurring for several years but the raise in PEIA fees tipped the scales.

This strike was different than the one in 1990 in that it included not only teachers but also service personnel, bus drivers, custodians, secretaries and other staff. Several lawyers said employees had no right to strike against the state and could be opening themselves up to injunctions. The state government implored teachers to accept the pay package and not to participate in what they termed an illegal walkout. Union leaders, however, felt there was substantial cause for a statewide walkout, so the plans went on as scheduled. The entire state went Red for Ed. This moment showed the entire state was unified, which hadn’t happened in 1990. I think this spoke volumes and many community organizations across the state stepped up to help see that the needs of our students were met, whether they were for food or childcare.

Beyond salary and benefits, teachers were concerned about legislation we believed would hurt public schools and students. The House proposed a bill to include “alternatively” certified teachers in West Virginia schools in hopes of filling several hundred vacancies. The bill would have erased the requirement that those wanting to become teachers through alternative certification already have an academic major or occupational area the same as or similar to the subject matter they wish to teach. Another bill on the table was Education Savings Accounts. These are basically school vouchers that drain funding from public schools, resulting in fewer resources to provide services to students. There were several bills attacking seniority rights for our teachers and service personnel. There were multiple bills to propose charter schools that also drain funding from our public school system. A bill that attacked union presidents passed the Senate, but died in the House. It would have stripped provisions in current law that allow elected presidents of statewide professional associations to purchase service credit in the State Teachers Retirement System. Finally, there was a bill on paycheck deception that would have made it cumbersome for employees to have union dues deducted from their paycheques. This was a clear attempt to silence the voices of the workers. These bad bills were all stopped due to the activism of our members.

VOICE: What did it feel like to be on strike for so long? How did it change your perspective?

SUMMER: Being on strike for nine days was much more stressful and tiring than teaching a classroom full of students. During that time, I still reported to work, but it was to stand in the cold and rain on the picket line. I also made two trips to our state capitol, almost five hours away. Our local union held meetings and rallies on the weekends and our evenings were filled with watching the news and communicating with one another. It deeply affected my family and it worried me. I began wondering if I should leave the state to work. I live less than 20 miles from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia where teachers are better paid. I had to think about my family and put them first even though I wanted to stay in my community to teach our kids. Thankfully, I was able to put those thoughts aside. I had many feelings during those nine days. I was frustrated with legislators who wouldn’t listen or show diligence in working to solve this injustice and with community and family members who didn’t support or understand our position.

When the whole state was united across the 55 counties I felt inspired and affirmed that I had taken the right position. Memorable moments included arriving at the state capitol and seeing thousands of teachers standing together. The chants, the signs, singing “Country Roads” and locking arms around the capitol are engraved in my memory. I’ll never forget stopping on the way down and having strangers say, “Don’t give up. We support you.” I didn’t expect California to send hundreds of pizzas or strangers to bring bottles of water, chips and chocolate. Teachers love chocolate. I took a photo holding a sign with a retired teacher from NY who had come to the capitol to stand in solidarity with us. I was reminded this is what America is all about. In my local community, businesses and individuals donated food to our picket line and it was nice to see the overwhelming support from those around us. I am both a parent and a teacher so I am completely invested in making this education system work. I never considered myself a labour or political activist prior to the work stoppage, but the strike changed me in really positive ways. I now consider myself a more responsible citizen. The experience wasn’t easy. I’d much rather have been teaching and I missed my students. So often teachers put others above themselves while their profession is diminished and disrespected. Our fight in West Virginia was not just about what we and the education system deserved. It was about what we needed.

VOICE: What did you want to ensure for the education system?

SUMMER: We have a teacher shortage in West Virginia and lose highly qualified teachers frequently to bordering states that pay significantly more. We have vacancies that can’t be filled and some that are filled by individuals without a teaching licence. Our students deserve trained and licensed educators. Qualifications should not be lowered to address a staffing shortage based on underfunding. There was a bill that was thrown out in response to the strike that would have lowered teacher-certification standards in order to fill vacant jobs. This was a concern to me not only as an educator, but as a West Virginia parent. This showed me that the state government was not interested in improving the education of our students. Part of tackling this issue is raising teacher salaries and having a reasonable benefits package to make our state more competitive in retaining highly qualified teachers who deliver high-quality instruction.

VOICE: Were you worried about going out on strike? Many students rely on school lunch programs and many parents can’t afford child care. How did you deal with that?

SUMMER: Worried is an understatement. I have to say that initially I had not intended to join the strike and had voiced that opinion. It wasn’t easy and I struggled emotionally. I felt as if I was abandoning my students and harming their education. I went into this profession to serve the children of my community, understanding and accepting the idea I would be paid below what I deserved. It sounds cliché, but I love my job. I look forward to teaching my lessons and reading aloud to my students. I miss them when we are not together. I teach at a small school and we are a family. I knew any decision I made affected them and I had to be sure it was the right one and the one that would benefit them the most. I have two students who cried when I missed school and I kept thinking about them.

I knew there were students who depended on school for their meal and their school environment was more pleasant than home. I actually made a pros and cons list and gave participating in the union serious thought. I believe all teachers were worried about the possibility of injunctions as this strike was illegal in West Virginia. It was uncertain what consequences could follow. If the days weren’t made up at the end we could also be docked pay, which working class families couldn’t sustain. In the end, I decided that the students of Morgan County deserved highly qualified teachers. My students deserved better than they were getting. My children deserved better. I needed to be an advocate and teach them the most valuable lesson I ever could – a lesson not learned in a textbook – to lead by example. I needed to be their voice.

What I do in my classroom on a daily basis helps my students grow as learners, but what was missed in nine days was not as important as what could have been missed had we not stood our ground. This was a teachable moment. I taught them a lesson in government and standing up for what you believe is right even when others don’t agree. Years from now I didn’t want my students, when asked what their teacher did during the strike of 2018, to say nothing!

VOICE: You were really effective in organizing and rallying parents and other supporters. How did you do that in your community? Did a lot of those relationships already exist or did you have to build them from scratch?

SUMMER: I teach in a small community and we are like a family. This was fortunate because the rapport was already there and we didn’t need to build relationships from scratch. It also helped that the issues affected more than education personnel. Even though some families may not have agreed with what we were doing, they were understanding and supportive. We had parents and businesses stop by with food and treats while we were on the picket line to show their support. We didn’t have to organize and rally our parents and supporters because they were already there, organizing and rallying for us. We did make sure we answered any questions our families had and provided information on why we were participating in the statewide work stoppage. Many teachers touched base with their students’ families to see how they were doing and to let the children know we missed them. It was important for them to know we had not abandoned them and still loved and cared for them, especially younger students who didn’t quite understand what was going on.

We talked with our students before the walkout to let them know what was happening and explained the reasons we were participating. We also debriefed with them when we returned to class and answered their questions. I think it is important to be honest and upfront with students about what is happening and to continue to build trust with them.

VOICE: Many different groups stepped in to support the strike. Can you talk about how that happened?

SUMMER: It just kind of happened. Support came from places we never expected. A school from North Carolina sent our school pizza one day. We didn’t even know it was coming. It just showed up. We paid it forward and found a small school like ours to support in the Oklahoma teachers’ strike by sending a box of treats. They sent us a thank you with items from a local mill. It is nice to see how people around the country are supporting one another. There was the group from California I mentioned earlier, who set up the GoFundMe page and sent 1,400 pizzas over two days to the capitol. Local residents and families from our school stepped up to support the efforts. While on the picket line, Frontier Communications vehicles beeped and gave thumbs up and Department of Highway trucks would beep knowing we were not only rallying for education employees but all employees. The local Boys and Girls Club offered free services for students during the day. This helped support parents who needed childcare. Our backpack program, which provides bags of food to students on weekends, breaks and over the summer, convened to prepare bags of food for students during the strike. The retired teachers’ association came to our weekend meetings and rallies to offer advice and words of encouragement. They gave us guidance as many of them were a part of the strike of 1990. The outpouring of support was incredible.

VOICE: Do you have any advice for Ontario teachers who are going into what will be a tough round of bargaining next year with a government that has already set an agenda of cuts and privatization? Are there lessons to take away from West Virginia?

SUMMER: The advice I would have is to pay close attention to what is happening in the legislature. When it is time to vote for your provincial member of parliament, make sure you do your research. If there is legislation on the table that will affect education, send emails or make phone calls to government officials even if you think your voice doesn’t matter. Get others to do the same. During the strike, we had some parents and community members say they felt the students should be back in school and we said we agreed with them 100 percent. But we had to make the schools worthy of their kids and ensure that our state legislation and working conditions created good classrooms. We had a flyer ready to hand out with the names and numbers of individuals to contact in our state government and it listed what our grievances were. Many people from the community took that flyer and made phone calls to voice their concerns. Stay active in your union by attending meetings. Build rapport and relationships with your students’ families so you have their understanding and support if a work stoppage needs to happen. Stay united with other school staff. Stand in solidarity. There is strength in numbers, but if some choose not to be vocal, respect that because you need each other. I’d say the lesson to take away from West Virginia is to stay united. Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided cannot stand.” If we weren’t 100 percent united, we would have never accomplished our goals. By standing in solidarity we created a crisis and rose against the power of our state. They had no choice but to listen. This would not have been possible if it weren’t for parents and the broader community backing us.

Summer McClintock is a member of the West Virginia Teachers’ Union.

With contributions from James Taylor and Izida Zorde, ETFO executive staff.