What are the West Virginia teachers fighting for? How did they organize a strike that broke the law and took the country by surprise?
On February 22, West Virginia teachers began an illegal strike for better wages and health insurance. The governor refused to budge until Tuesday night, when he proposed a 5 percent raise and a “task force” to address the health insurance issue. The union leadership was quick to accept the deal, calling on teachers to go back to school on Thursday. However, on Wednesday, over a thousand teachers overtook the state congress and on Thursday, all 55 districts were still closed.
Left Voice interviewed Jay O’Neal, a middle school English teacher in Charleston, West Virginia. He has been an active participant in the strike and in the events leading up to it.
The issue of pay has been central for teachers. What is the pay like in West VA?
Our salary is especially bad. Here, schools aren’t primarily funded by property taxes, so salary doesn’t vary widely between counties. There’s a state minimum salary, and right now, I think if you’re starting off with a bachelor’s, the state minimum is something like $33,000 for a beginning teacher. Some counties vote in levies and raise money to pay their teachers a couple of thousand [dollars] more. It’s such low pay that a lot of teachers have more than one job and are struggling. I know a teacher — her kid is on CHIP even though she’s working full time and everything; it’s put her in that bad of shape. It’s really tough for the new teachers that are starting low on the salary scale; plus, they have student loans to pay for.
I can give a little more perspective to the low pay because I have taught in other places. This is my third year in West Virginia. This is my seventh year teaching, total, and I’m on the seventh year of the salary scale — I’m on the “Master’s plus 15” on the salary scale — and I still make about $6,000 less than I did my first year of teaching. Read more …