Teachers in West Virginia just won a major victory, and it could be a flashpoint for increased labor action in 2018. The statewide strike, which led to a nine-day shutdown of public schools across West Virginia, ended when the governor and the state legislature agreed to give teachers a 5% raise and to put a stop to planned raises in health insurance premiums.
The initial bill passed by the legislature promised only 2% pay raises coupled with increased health care premiums that would have meant a pay cut for many teachers. West Virginia is already fourth to last in terms of teacher salaries—earning a full $10,000 less per year than the national average.
For decades West Virginia has pushed a corporate tax cut agenda that has starved state coffers, consistently failing to offset lost tax revenue. To make up of for the losses, the state has continually sought spending cuts on education and public services—West Virginia now spends 11.4% less on each student than it did prior to the 2008 financial crisis.
West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country, with nearly one in four children living below the poverty line. For many students, free school breakfasts and lunches are their primary meals of the day, and many schools offer programs to ensure students and families get enough to eat over the weekends.
During the strike, America saw the lengths to which teachers go for their students. Before making the decision to strike, teachers and volunteers organized distribution points, and many teachers hand-delivered bags of food to students and families they knew were in need.
“Our students rely on us for more than just education, so we are trying to help them during this time,” said Kevin Green, a social studies teacher at Riverview High School. “We want to continue to show our love for our kids, even when we can’t be there because we are fighting for our rights.”
While the West Virginia teachers strike represents a significant victory for teachers in that state, it already has sparked calls for action in Arizona and Oklahoma. Last week, in an act of defiance and solidarity, thousands of Arizona’s teachers showed up to school wearing red. In Oklahoma, teachers were preparing a list of demands for the governor.
It is becoming increasingly clear that a backlash is brewing against tax-cutting frenzies, and teachers in struggling states are leading the charge.