The statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia — one of the biggest in the nation in years — could signal the beginning of a new trend: a revolt against austerity policies.
The nine-day walkout, which ended Tuesday, was highly unusual. Teachers don’t leave their classrooms unless they’re seriously fed up, and West Virginia’s teachers were mad as hell. Austerity policies have squeezed them more and more each year: They earned, on average, $45,622 in 2016, with West Virginia ranking 48th among the states in teacher salaries, according to the National Education Association. Only Oklahoma and Mississippi paid less, and Oklahoma teachers, encouraged by the West Virginia walkout, are also considering a strike.
West Virginia’s 20,000 public schoolteachers have not received an across-the-board raise since 2014. Early this year, West Virginia’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, offered them a 1 percent a year raise for the next five years, but if inflation averages 2 percent a year for that period, this translates into an effective 5 percent pay cut.
Lawmakers defended the 1 percent raises as fiscally responsible, but teachers saw them as an affront. Adding to the pain, West Virginia told its school employees that many of them would have to start paying $300 more a month in health care premiums. The strike ended only after the governor signed a bill giving them a 5 percent raise effective July 1 — so instead of getting 1 percent a year, they get 5 percent this year.
West Virginia’s teachers were like the proverbial frog in water that was slowly being brought to a boil. But this frog realized what was happening and jumped. Moreover, state officials added insult to financial injury. When teachers from a few counties held protests in early February, Governor Justice belittled them, calling them “dumb bunnies.” Then the state health plan told teachers that if they didn’t download and use a “wellness app,” Go365, to track their steps, they would be penalized $500 a year.