February 25, 2018, West Virgina Correspondent
In March, 1990, West Virginia school teachers staged an 11-day strike over pay at the end the state legislature’s regular session, returning to work only after the governor promised to call a special session to address teacher pay. In a state supreme court ruling that year, the lack of collective bargaining in the public sector was cited as the basis for declaring the 1990 strike to have been illegal.
Eighteen years later, another statewide work stoppage was easily predictable given the deteriorating working conditions in West Virginia public sector. Years of underfunding have eroded the health insurance benefits of most of the state’s public employees covered by the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), resulting in increasing copays, out-of-pocket and other medical and pharmaceutical charges.
The erosion of insurance benefits has been further exacerbated by the already low pay for West Virginia public workers, who rank among the lowest nationwide. Highway equipment operators, for example, can easily make a substantially increased wage in the booming natural gas industry. Most state agencies and school systems are, as a consequence, plagued by recurring job vacancies by personnel seeking employment elsewhere, even if it means moving out of state. It is undisputed that many state employees qualify for the very government assistance benefits that their agencies administer.
The situation was bound to come to a head given that the legislature and all state executive officials are dominated, unlike in 1990, by Republican politicians, many espousing an ideological agenda favoring privatization and the dismantling of the public sector altogether.
Likely due to the higher density of union membership in public education, there is a wave of legislative initiatives to undermine seniority rules, as well as to establish charter schools and voucher funding, coupled with bills to attack paycheck union dues check-off.
The 1990 strike was restricted to teachers, who are split between affiliation with American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA). This time around, however, the strike is bolstered by bus drivers, custodians, cooks, office staff and other affiliated with the fiercely independent West Virginia School Service Personnel Association (WVSSPA).
For all the legislative rhetoric about “union bosses.” the current strike has been pushed by the rank and file of the education unions. In late January, there was widespread talk of striking as it became evident that the legislature was even more hostile to public employees than its Democratic predecessors had been. By February 2, there had been several counties who staged one-day walkouts that included hundreds of school district employees vocally mobbing the regular session meetings in Charleston.
On February 17, a rally of more than 10,000 gathered at the capitol, a crowd even larger that the union protest to the passage of right-to-work legislation two years prior. The stage was set for the statewide public education strike that began on Thursday, February 22, and promises to continue the following week.
Although the level of frustration and anger among state employees is equal to that of education workers, they suffer the disadvantage of far lower union density. Less than 10% of the 30,000 state employees are organized, and are they therefore vulnerable to discipline if they participate in the illegal strike. Those who are unionized are either corrections workers in CWA or multi-agency employees with the West Virginia Public Workers Union, United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 170. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) pulled its West Virginia affiliate two years ago, ceding its small operation to AFT.