It was Tuesday—day 13 of the West Virginia teacher strike. My friend Delia and I had already been to the Capitol six times, but we were determined to make a difference on this seventh trip. We had an early appointment to talk to Sen. Ryan Ferns, one of the members of the joint committee working to find a compromise on our salary bill (bill 4145). But when we arrived, his secretary told us that “things were happening” and the senator would not be able to see us.
We could hear chants and cheers starting up outside the Senate Chamber, so we decided to go out and join the back of the crowd. We couldn’t see very well, but soon the crowd became hushed, and we heard Gov. Jim Justice begin to speak. The joint committee had come to a compromise, and the strike was over. We had heard that before—just a few days ago—but nevertheless, the crowd broke into cheers.
It was hard, but we tried not to celebrate prematurely. The pickets at home were told to keep going while we waited on pins and needles at the Capitol. Several Democratic senators and our union leaders came to the front of the crowd with a bullhorn; one of them explained the process the legislation was undergoing and expressed his hope that they would suspend procedural rules and sign the bill into law today.
Another senator compared our situation to the plot of The Hunger Games: Groups (of public employees) had been pitted against one another, but despite this, we united to make a change for the better. All across the state, we came together: all three unions (AFT-WV, WVEA, WVSSPA), public employees, parents, students, community members, superintendents, and boards of education.
And remember, in The Hunger Games, District 12 was Appalachia.
This strike was a long time coming. I’m the band director in a small school in rural West Virginia called Tygarts Valley Middle/High School. We teach sixth through 12th grades and have a little less than 500 students enrolled in the school. This is my first year in this position, but it’s my 11th year teaching in Randolph County. I was tasked with rebuilding the band program. The high school band had eight students at band camp this past summer, but it grew to 18 members by the end of marching season. When we started our field show during summer band, I was not sure what I would be getting into, but by the end of the summer, I was convinced that all of the kids were gifted! There’s a pretty awesome crew in the middle school band classes, and a great fifth grade band feeder program.
I am truly fortunate to be teaching at Tygarts Valley High School; the kids are fantastic, and we have amazing support throughout the community. But it hasn’t been easy to build the program. We’ve needed to raise money for more uniforms and a new banner, and we still need other instruments—a bass clarinet, tenor and baritone saxophones.
The need is clear throughout the entire state. There really is a teacher shortage. There were four music jobs in Randolph County that were not filled by certified music teachers this year, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. West Virginia needs math teachers, Spanish teachers, special education teachers—all kinds of teachers. There were over 700 positions that were not filled this year throughout the state.
What has caused this shortage? To name just a few things: low teacher salaries compared to surrounding states, no recent raises, and rising health insurance costs. West Virginia is unique in that our state legislature determines our salaries; West Virginia is a “right to work” state and does not allow collective bargaining. There is no cost-of-living increase tied to our salaries. A few years ago the legislature began cutting certain business taxes, and this made balancing the budget difficult.
In addition, this year the legislature introduced a multitude of anti-public school legislation. There were bills that would affect public school funding (siphoning public school money toward the private companies who run charter schools, or to private schools and homeschoolers). There were bills that would affect teachers’ careers, like a bill that would get rid of seniority when job cuts are made. And there were bills that would make the union’s existence more difficult—for example, prohibiting union dues from being deducted from paychecks.
Enough was enough. The three teacher/service personnel unions came together to unite public employees throughout West Virginia. And what happened was not really just a strike, but a movement that has enlightened our whole state. Through the 13 days we were on strike, the Republicans in the legislature tried again and again to divide us. Teachers against service personnel. Education employees against other state employees. Union members against their leaders. Nothing worked. In the end, the bill passed, and when it did, pandemonium broke out. “This is your victory.” “Cherish it!” “You did this!” “You are worthy!”
We held strong, and we have learned from our experience. Most importantly, we learned that we need to watch what our legislators do, and not what they say. We learned to check how they have voted on the issues that we care about. And we learned about resources to help us in this task, like the website FollowTheMoney.org.
The battle may be over, but we know we must remain vigilant. There is more work to do. This 5 percent raise is only a baby step; if West Virginia wants to have competitive salaries, we will need a raise again next year. And the most important goal is to find a sustaining funding source for the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA), the health insurance for all of West Virginia’s public employees.
For now, though, I’m very happy to be getting back to school and my students. Go Bulldogs!
Barbara Miltenberger Green is the band director at Tygarts Valley Middle/High School in Mill Creek, West Virginia.