Nine days after 19,488 teachers walked out of their classrooms to strike for better pay, West Virginia Governor James Justice approved legislation giving all state employees a five percent raise. Class across the states resumes Wednesday.
Teachers in the hallway chanting “Back to school” pic.twitter.com/yGOhJNFhbp
— Jake Jarvis (@JakeJarvisWV) March 6, 2018
Justice had originally announced plans to grant extremely slight pay increases to West Virginia’s teachers: a two percent salary increase in July and a one percent pay hike in 2020 and 2021. The teacher’s union deemed these changes inadequate, citing their failure to properly cover the increase in the cost-of-living and lacking in its acknowledgment of other common issues related to being a public employee, like healthcare costs and insurance options. In protest, thousands of educators and their supporters flocked to West Virginia’s Capitol, in Charleston, W.V. For the next nine days, every school in West Virginia was closed.
The fortitude exemplified by West Virginia’s teachers illustrates the capabilities of unified labor organizing in 2018. Throughout its run, the strike has come to show a national audience the power of effective labor organizing. West Virginia, a state once shaped by the strength of its mining unions, has seen this kind of organizing dwindle over time. The current strike rekindles some of that flame. “We believe we’re following in their footsteps,” Katie Endicott, as high school English teacher who participated in the strike, said. “We believe the movement was started years ago through the mine wars. We’re just reviving the movement that was started years ago.”
Picket line in South Chas pic.twitter.com/EX7GTf0XBj
— Jeff Jenkins (@JeffJenkinsMN) February 27, 2018
With the teacher strike, in particular, the renewal in West Virginia labor organizing is spurred by a sense of intolerability. Teachers in West Virginia are among the lowest paid teachers in the country, ranking 48th according to a study by the National Education Association, and they have not received a statewide raise in four years. The low salaries have led many qualified teachers to leave the state, thus often leaving the state’s schools lacking in resources for its students. Some teachers, especially those with children, mentioned that their low salary leaves them living paycheck to paycheck, and others have noted that they’ve been forced to take on second jobs to support themselves.
“The unwritten story here is that when you strip people’s voice for so long and you take so much from them, there is a point at which people will stand up,” Randi Weingarten, the national president of the American Federation of Teachers, told USA Today. “And that is the story of what happened in West Virginia.”
Michelle Wells, Art Oakland (IBEW 131) and Catherine Folmar – John Marshall High pic.twitter.com/zO8aTTyFXx
— WVTrades (@WVSBT) February 27, 2018
The story of what happened in West Virginia is also a feminist one. Traditionally, the role of a teacher, especially one for young children, has been associated with and assigned to women in America. In a survey distributed by the U.S. Department of Education, it was revealed that around 77 percent of teachers were women in the 2015-2016 year. Additionally, almost nine in 10 primary school teachers were women. The fact that teachers in West Virginia have been underpaid gets at the larger problem of female-dominated fields being historically undervalued. the historic undervaluing and chronic underpayment of teachers is to be expected in a society and economy that systematically diminishes the contributions of women. The Economist puts it in straighter terms: “Occupations dominated by women have lower status and pay.” Additionally, whenever women begin taking over a male-dominated field, the industry’s pay level begins to decrease.
Consequently, West Virginia’s answer to the strike’s call for higher wages and better benefits represents a promising sign for the ability of collective organizing to incite legislative change, especially for women. Teachers involved in the strikes mobilized in Facebook groups and union halls throughout the nine-day process in order to ensure that they got exactly what they wanted. When the raise that they’ve now received was first promised to them by the governor, the teachers used their collective networks to establish that the strike would continue until the governor’s promises were written into law. The legislation they sought ultimately passed unanimously through the West Virginia legislature.
The strikes and the commitment of West Virginia’s teachers show that legal progress, with collective organizing, is possible. “Maybe our voices are being heard,” Danielle Harris, a third-grade teacher in a centrally located county in the state, said after Justice’s announcement. She added only: “Finally.”
Natasha Piñon is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a junior at the University of Southern California, where she studies political science and journalism. She also writes for The Daily Trojan.