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United in Red to Stand for Better Pay

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United in Red to Stand for Better Pay

Protesters gathering outside the state capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia.

Protesters gathering outside the state capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia.

Protesters gathering outside the state capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia.

Protesters gathering outside the state capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia.

Kathryn Juhasz, Ranger Review Reporter

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On Thursday, February 22, teachers in the state of West Virginia went on a strike that would leave hundreds of schools in the state closed for weeks and thousands of students without teachers. The staff claimed they were protesting for better pay and healthcare benefits.

Schools across all 55 counties in West Virginia were closed while the teachers were on strike. This strike affected an estimated 277,000 students and closed all 680 public schools within the state. About 20,000 teachers participated in this walkout.

The leaders of teacher unions within the state, along with their members, were calling for general salary increases. They were also wanting a permanent fix to their healthcare through the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

The average salary for teachers in 2016 in West Virginia was $45,622 a year, according to the National Education Association. This is well below the national average of $60,205 a year. West Virginia was ranked 50th in the country for average teacher salaries in 2016, which places them at the bottom of the list.

The strike began on Thursday, February 22 after the governor of West Virginia Jim Justice presented a plan that would give teachers, school service personnel, and state police a two percent increase in pay, starting in July. There would then be a one percent increase for teachers in 2020 and in 2021.

Teachers claim that this pay increase is not enough, given how much lower their average salaries are in comparison to other states. The two percent increase in the base salaries would come out to be around $808 dollars a year. The initial proposition called for a five percent increase according to Christine Campbell, who is the president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.

Teachers and other supporters of the strike marched to the capitol building in Charleston to petition. The teachers wore red shirts, often with the saying “United” on them, which would soon become the signature of this petition.

With so many teachers not willing to come into work, schools were called off in a manner that would be similar to the protocol for a snow day. Some schools announced that the strike was the reasoning for schools being closed. Many other schools also cited the closings to be due to weather or staff development.

On Tuesday, February 27th, the governor introduced a tentative plan that would increase the teacher’s salaries to the original five percent that was asked for. At first, this new plan seemed to be a solution and it was planned that the teachers would return to work on Thursday the 29th.

This was not the final solution, however, as many teachers across the state did not return to school on Thursday. These teachers claimed they would not return until the deal was written into words and made final. Those who were protesting also say this deal would only solve one of the many problems that made them go on strike. They also say this pay increase would not help with the issue of the rising cost of healthcare.

Yet again, schools had to be called off on Thursday and Friday, since so many teachers were still not willing to come into work. Given how long schools have been out of session, some students in West Virginia claimed that they would join their teachers in Charleston to support them in this protest.

“We’re anticipating there will be thousands of not just teachers, but also students and community members today to walk around the Capitol,” said Katrina Minney, a high school teacher from Kenna West Virginia. She said she would also be in Charleston on Friday for the protest.  

Many teachers and union leaders agreed that they would not return to school until a new deal is put into place. This agreement has led to schools being closed for a second week, and as of Tuesday the 6th of February school had called off for nine consecutive days.

On Tuesday, the House of Delegates passed the bill, and it was then sent to the Senate, who would be the last group to have to approve the new legislation. Campbell says she is expecting for school to be back in session on Wednesday if the Senate passes the bill on Tuesday.

“We’re just hoping and praying this is not just words, but that this is a celebration for our state and our Senate president, Mitch Carmichael, will pass this bill,” said Danielle Harris. She is a third-grade teacher from Fayette County, who protested and says she became teary-eyed as Justice announced the new deal on Tuesday.

This protest was only a statewide protest, but it is also influencing other teachers in different states to stand up for themselves as well. Teachers in Oklahoma are claiming they have also reached their breaking point and say they may possibly walkout next month.

Once this legislation is passed, many teachers and union leaders predict that schools will be back in session by the end of the week. However, it is still unknown if this will be the final solution for the teachers in West Virginia.

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