By Phil Kabler
For the West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Having loomed over the legislative session for weeks, a statewide walkout of teachers and school service personnel came to fruition on the 44th day of the 2018 regular session, as thousands of red-clad protestors filled the state Capitol on Thursday and Friday.
In its initial days, the first teachers’ strike since an 11-day walkout in 1990 had something of a carnival atmosphere, with teachers displaying hard-drawn signs, with some donning costumes, as they filled the Great Hall of the Capitol chanting, “Fed up, fired up,” “Enough is enough,” “Do your job,” and “Remember in November,” among others.
With the announcement by the teachers’ unions that the walkout will continue, legislators returning to the Capitol Monday to start the final two weeks of the regular session can expect to be met by more protests from striking teachers.
A combination of four years with no pay raises, increasing health insurance costs and the sense of a general lack of respect pushed teachers to the boiling point and into the Capitol and onto picket lines around the state.
Joining them Thursday was national American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who told the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “They are engaged in a righteous and fundamental American values fight for dignity and respect.”
She added, “We need the Legislature to actually treat us like the priority education should be.”
The specter of the teachers’ strike led legislative leaders and Gov. Jim Justice to scramble behind-the-scenes Tuesday afternoon and evening to hurriedly pass legislation to give pay raises to teachers, school service personnel, and the State Police. (Those are the only categories of public employees whose salaries are written into state Code, although traditionally, other state employees receive the same percentage raises, written into the state Budget Bill.)
Tuesday evening, the Senate and House of Delegates passed legislation to give teachers a three-year, 2 percent- 1 percent- 1 percent pay increase, with a two-year, 2 percent- 1 percent increase for service personnel and state employees (SB267). Justice signed it into law Wednesday night, on the eve of the walkout.
The legislation amounted to an ultimatum to the state’s two teachers unions, one that the unions rejected as inadequate.
“These folks are frustrated. They want to see something that will actually pull us out of 48th in the country,” said Christine Campbell, president of the AFT/West Virginia. “These folks want to see their paychecks go up, not down.”
Justice issued a statement calling the pay proposal the prudent thing to do until there is certainty the current state economic recovery will be ongoing, and urging teachers to stay in the classrooms.
“I promise you nobody knows for sure that we are out of the woods,” Justice said. “I know our teachers are underpaid and under-appreciated. But I also know that our teachers and families want us not to slip back and find our families again leaving our state seeking employment and opportunity.”
Justice, who was elected as Democrat but changed his party affiliation to Republican last August, accused Democrats in the Legislature who are pushing for larger raises of engaging in election year grandstanding.
“I feel the Republicans are trying to be cautious and prudent to assure our state won’t fall back and be doomed to be 50th to forever. And, I know that is exactly what I’m trying to do,” Justice said.
Also Tuesday, at Justice’s request, the PEIA Finance Board voted to freeze the health insurance plan’s premiums and benefits at current levels for the upcoming 2018-19 plan year, avoiding proposed steep premium increases for insurees with family or employee and spouse plans.
“For one year, beginning in July of this year, benefits and premiums will be exactly as they are today,” PEIA executive director Ted Cheatham said of the freeze. “How many companies do you know that don’t have a change in benefits from year to year?”
However, the freeze will require the Legislature to come up with an extra $29 million of funding for PEIA. The House passed legislation to raid the state’s Rainy Day emergency reserve funds to fund PEIA (HB4620), a proposal that is not supported by Senate leaders.
The House also passed and sent to the Senate legislation to direct the first 20 percent of future state budget surpluses to the PEIA Stabilization Fund.
While the bill (HB4625) passed the House 98-0, many delegates echoed concerns of teachers and state employees that it does not fix financial woes for the PEIA program, which at current rates of inflation for medical/pharmaceutical costs, needs an additional $50 million to $70 million of funding each year.
Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, noted that in recent years, with the state economy struggling, 20 percent of recent budget surpluses would amount to $5 million or less each year for PEIA.
“Five million would be a little bit of help – what is that, 10 percent?” Rowe said, adding, “We have failed to develop a certain, reliable and stable funding source for these costs.”