West Virginia Teachers’ Fight Is Still Ongoing: Will They Strike Again?

Teachers in West Virginia kicked off a multistate strike wave last winter when they shuttered every school in the state over their consistently low wages, lousy working conditions, and most importantly, their broken Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), the system that insures every public employee in the state. They won a raise, but the biggest fight, says Rebecca Diamond, a West Virginia teacher and member of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia (AFT), is still ongoing: the fight to fix and fully fund PEIA.

Sarah Jaffe: Tell us what it has been like since the strike?

Rebecca Diamond: Going back, the first few days were incredible. It was really great to see all of the kids, to see what we had accomplished, because when they first came out and told us that they had ended the strike — that we were going to get a raise and that they were going to come up with this task force to fix PEIA — they were all clapping about it and they were all happy and they said, “But, we are just going to give you a 3 percent raise.” Hearing our union leaders say that, we were like, “No.” I mean, they even announced that school would be in session the next day, but it was a week later.

When we went back all the kids … they had questions and I got to show them my videos so they could see what exactly was going on. The worst part was to hear the negative parts about what some of the parents thought about us going on strike. I actually had a student who said that his parents didn’t think it was right that we were going on strike. That we should have been in school. He was basically calling us selfish, that we shouldn’t have been fighting for more money.

And that is what a lot of people thought — that that was the only reason that we were going out on strike, was for more money. When really, it was all about our insurance. If they don’t fix our insurance, then a raise is not really going to make a difference. It is going to go away.

You were telling me that you have a second job.

I do. I work at a fast-food restaurant, Hardee’s in Huntington. I have done it for three summers now. And only because … we just don’t make enough over the summer from the school year. We are only 10-month employees. So, what we do is we pull out money each paycheck and put that over summer pay, and over the summer, that is never enough for us to make it with our kids doing different things. I have two kids.

The main reason that I took that job was because they had … we had ended school early and we were beginning really late the next year and we were going to go without a paycheck, which we did. It was the next summer though, so I had to save up for that paycheck because my husband is a teacher, too.

I have kept it because it does help us out in the summer and we are able to pay our bills. It is not as bad living paycheck to paycheck over the summer whenever I have a second job.

Looking ahead, there is still the open question about what is going on with the insurance.

Well, they have had task force meetings and they have … basically gathered from the communities what their main concerns are with PEIA and how it is going to affect them. These panel members are supposed to take it back to the committee, and then they are all supposed to meet and they are supposed to have a decision made before the election – Surprise! – and come up with what they feel like is going to be a solution.

The only solution that I feel like is going to suffice for teachers is if there is a funding source for it…. They have known for the last five years that there was not a funding source for PEIA. They basically just continued to put it on the backburner, because we have not done anything about it. And it is not just teachers, it is every state employee in the State of West Virginia. It is not like they were just hit by a truck and realized that, “How are we going to pay for that PEIA? What are we going to do for it?”

We have given them options. People have given them options to fund PEIA, but nobody wants to take the initiative to make that a funding source for PEIA.

They have a committee that was formed. Originally, they had like 13 or 14 members on it and there were no women. So, of course, we threw a fit. It is like, “Really? You are not going to include any women?” … Christine Campbell was on it, the AFT president in West Virginia. But then, they didn’t have any sort of teacher person whatsoever. They ended up extending it to 26 members and there was a retired teacher on there…. Then, he tried to say that he was the reason that we got our raise, but he was so against it….

They have met in small committees throughout the state of West Virginia. They went and met with the teachers all over the state and we got to voice our concerns about what our issues were with PEIA and what we needed from them. They have had several meetings….

So, they were supposed to take all of those back to the committee and then the committee is supposed to…. By November, before the election, they are going to hopefully have a solution for it and if they don’t have a solution for it, I don’t know what is going to happen.

So, they are timing it for right before the election?

Yes. Right before the election. So that way, we can definitely make our decision about who we want to keep and who we don’t.

Do you think they will end up putting it off until after the election?

I just don’t know that they are going to come up with the solution that we are going to be happy with. I really don’t…. They have known it for five years, but they have put it off and they have put it off and it has been almost as if, “Well, maybe it will just go away. Maybe they will just go away and they will forget about it.” … They are just going to continue to make us pay for it and we are just going to lay down and say, “Okay. Just walk all over me.” You know?

That is basically what teachers have done their whole lives. That is what my mom has told me, is that teachers don’t want to stand up and fight for what they believe in because of their students in their classrooms, because they know how important it is to be in their classrooms. They feel like, “That is my most important job right now, so I can’t leave them. I can’t not go to school and not teach my classroom.”

I just hope that we continue to have the solidarity and we are united when this does come to a head.

Talk about funding sources. That was a big issue during the strike.

The extraction of natural gas, for sure. We charge a 5 percent sales tax right now, but even if we only upped it by 2.5 percent, that would give a funding source for PEIA, because they are not going anywhere, but their argument was, “Well, if we up it, they are going to leave because they can go to Pennsylvania where they are not charged anything to get it.” But Pennsylvania doesn’t need it. They have got other, bigger corporations. They have got other funding sources for the state. All we have is natural gas. We used to have coal, but it is gone.

Well, and the gas is there.

It is already there…. They are absolutely not going anywhere, but that is their biggest concern: If we raise it, they are going to leave. Alaska charges 25 percent tax on the extraction of natural gas…. And they think they are going to leave West Virginia?

And Alaska pays everybody — every Alaskan a check out of that money.

And then they talked about … legalizing marijuana and putting a tax on legalizing marijuana. Of course, a lot of people are against that, and then cigarette tax going up and the tobacco tax going up, “Well, we can use that money.” Well, there is not enough of it. I just don’t feel like there is enough of it. There is with our natural gas. Because coal is gone. Although Trump said he was bringing it back…. It is really not coming back. If you go down to some of the southern counties in West Virginia … and you see the deplorable conditions that they live in…. It used to be a booming county because of coal, but now West Virginia doesn’t have a whole lot. Nobody wants to come and teach in West Virginia. Say, “Hey, we are number 48 in teacher pay, but gosh, it is pretty there.”

What has it been like going around and talking about it and have everybody go like, “Oh my goodness! West Virginia teachers…?”

This has been one hell of a ride, for sure. From being a member of AFT, this is what has brought me here, just because of AFT. Who knew paying my [union] dues each year would allow me all of this?

Were there a lot of teachers at your school who were paying members before this started?

We had an issue in our county … maybe five or six years ago, where we had an issue with our superintendent. She was hiring her family. She was creating jobs for her family. She was just doing things that were not appropriate for Wayne County. So, a lot of teachers became members of unions during that time because they could…. It wasn’t like she could come back on them and say, “Oh, well, I don’t like you so you are going to be fired,” because then if you were part of a union, then you had somebody to actually protect you and you had that insurance and everything.

During that time, a lot of people became members. We really didn’t care which union they became a member of, it was just like, “You really need to be in one regardless of which one you pick….”

Have more people joined since the strikes?

Yes. They had stations set up at the capitol where you could sign up to become a member … and you got your free dues until the end of the year…. I would love to see our entire staff become [members]…. You have to pay dues, but the benefits are just…. You can’t do without it. My mom was always a member, so I have always been a member.

You mentioned seeing your mom on the strike in 1990.

Yes, she was in the strike in 1990. Now, she said the one thing that she remembers, they did not close the schools…. They were not united…. Whenever she used to picket at schools during the day, she said they weren’t allowed to picket in front … I don’t know if it was just to see which teachers were going in and which ones weren’t, and that is when they were called scabs. That is what they called them, the ones that went in.

She said that is the one thing that she will never forget, is who went in and then who didn’t go in. But yet, once they got all of their benefits, they were like, “Oh, thanks! I didn’t lose money, but thanks for what all you did” and you are like, “Yeah … don’t touch me. Where were you at seven in the morning picketing all day long for what was right for us…?”

In 1990, they didn’t really have a lot of communications skills, apparently, because I think there were seven or eight counties that didn’t have full closure. Some counties did, but not all of them did.

Not like ours. We were watching the news and watching all 55 counties close. Like, “Okay, we only have five more to go. Oh, we only have three more to go …” and then, the last one, it was like, “Hallelujah! We are all closed….”

And then, our superintendents were with us, too. They all had a meeting in Charleston and they all came together and said, “We are going to back our teachers. We are not going to open our school systems until we know we have adequate supervision for the students and that all of our teachers are back.” So that was great.

Do you think it will come to another strike?

I am about 70 percent sure that there will be some sort of action taken again, yes…. And the only thing that scares me is that it may not be to the magnitude that it was. Our main concern was PEIA, so maybe I am wrong. Maybe there will be another one where we will all actually be out on strike and we will actually be all on the same page.

If you think about the state workers, like the police officers, the Department of Highway workers, your social workers — how do they go on strike? How do the police officers go on strike?

What else should people know about what has been going on since the strike?

I wish people knew more about some of our issues with PEIA. I know some people have different insurance relations, but especially the workers in West Virginia. I know a lot of them. They think that we are just going to back down from this, that we are going to forget about it — that by the time November comes around and we are paying whatever premium we have to, that it is just going to go to the wayside. I just don’t want everybody to forget that our biggest fight has not been won yet. We are not there completely.

If anybody is thinking about going on a strike … there is a lot of information that they need to know. They need to prepare for it. It can’t be, “Okay, today we are deciding to go on this strike and tomorrow we are going on strike.” You can’t expect it to be successful if you don’t plan for it. If you don’t know what is happening. If you don’t know what you were fighting for. Then, to let people in your community, let people know what you are doing. Find out if they still believe in you, too.

I just hope people realize the struggles of our insurance because I have heard a lot of people say … We got what we wanted, we just need to go back to the classroom and just shut up. I hope people educate themselves about what is going on with any strategy if it involves them, if it involves their community.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.