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‘Underpaid’ teachers resume walkout in West Virginia as state considers injunction

The state employs nearly 20,000 classroom teachers in its public schools and has more than 277,000 students.
West Virginia Teachers

(CNN) — After a tense weekend without talks, West Virginia’s public school teachers resumed their strike on Monday — closing schools for a third day — and state officials said they may consider an injunction to stop the walkout.

Teachers and school service employees first hit the picket lines Thursday in all of the state’s 55 counties to demand better pay and benefits.

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Dr. Steven Paine said local superintendents met on Sunday to discuss the work stoppage and the possibility of legal action, which could involve an injunction.

Representatives for the state and the teachers did not meet Saturday and Sunday to work on hammering out a solution, according to Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.

Teachers held a candlelight vigil at the steps of the state capitol in Charleston Sunday night, and planned to go inside the capitol on Monday to stage protests, as they did last week.

“You know, as a professional degreed teacher, working two jobs, I qualify for WIC and food stamps,” said Jacob Fertig, an art teacher at Riverside High School in Belle, in Kanawha County. WIC is the Women, Infants and Children food and nutrition service, a federal program.

“We collected on the WIC, so that’s how low teacher pay is. There were a lot of times where we got to choose between groceries and health coverage for my family. This isn’t just an issue of a bunch of people squabbling over a little bit of insurance benefits or a little bit of pay — we are really in a bad place here as far as that stuff goes.”

Governor defends legislation

The work stoppage came after Gov. Jim Justice signed legislation late Wednesday night granting teachers a 2% pay increase starting in July, followed by 1% pay increases over the next two years.

“We need to keep our kids and teachers in the classroom,” Justice said in a statement after signing the pay raise bill. “We certainly recognize our teachers are underpaid and this is a step in the right direction to addressing their pay issue.”

But the bill did not address further concerns of teachers, including issues with the teachers’ public employees insurance program, the rising costs of health care, and a tax on payroll deduction options, Campbell said.

The pay raise, which amounts to 4% over the next few years, is a reduction from an earlier version of the bill that proposed a 5% total increase in wages, Campbell said, noting that teachers in surrounding states make anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 more than teachers in West Virginia.

The state employs nearly 20,000 classroom teachers in its public schools and has more than 277,000 students enrolled, according to Alyssa Keedy of the West Virginia Department of Education.

While their teachers are picketing, students are getting some support in their communities.

Teachers’ unions organized educators and service staff members to work with food pantries to send children home with extra food in advance of the school closures. Some community centers and churches are also hosting programs for students so working parents don’t have to stay home.

Teachers walked out before, in 1990, and that strike lasted 11 days.

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