When the Rank and File Leads

It's unclear how the standoff between West Virginia workers and the state senate will end, but if nothing else, this week’s decision to keep striking is a reminder that the rank and file can lead.

Teachers protest Friday, March 2 at the State Capitol. (Scott Heins/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

“We believe the best course of action at this time is to return to school tomorrow, however, we realize that not everyone will,” said the West Virginia Education Association’s president at a press conference Wednesday evening. Since then, school remains cancelled in all fifty-five counties in West Virginia as striking teachers and school service personnel refuse to return to work.

While national media reported the end of the strike on Tuesday evening when union leaders struck a deal with Governor Jim Justice for a 5 percent pay raise, cracks in the deal started to appear almost as soon as it was announced. The presidents of West Virginia’s two teacher associations announced the deal to school personnel at a nationally televised rally at the capitol. The crowd cheered the news that the deal included a 5 percent pay raise for all teachers and service personnel — and almost immediately began shouting, “what about PEIA?”

The announcement that the deal included a task force to make recommendations to the 2019 legislature on fixing the underfunded Public Employee Insurance Agency was greeted with boos. Union leaders went on to state that schools would be closed Wednesday for a “cooling off” period, but that workers would be back in school on Thursday with union leaders “reserv[ing] the right to call our teachers and service personnel out at a later date if we need to.”

There was no “cooling off” on Wednesday. Rank-and-file teachers and service personnel were upset not just about the deal, which appeared to shortchange a core demand of fixing PEIA, but also about how the deal was presented to them. It looked as if workers, who had all taken votes in their schools to walk out, were not going to be given a vote on whether to walk back in.

It also quickly became clear on Wednesday that the 5 percent pay raise portion of the deal was not actually a done deal. The state legislature was not enthusiastic about Justice’s creative mechanism for funding the pay raise: inventing new budget projections. Rather than increasing revenue to cover the raises, the governor instead revealed a revised budget showing that the state would take in $58 million more in revenue than previously projected in the next fiscal year — conveniently enough to pay for a 5 percent raise. If that projection proves overly optimistic the state will face a revenue shortfall next year and will need to either make budget cuts or increase revenue.

The House of Delegates passed the pay raise bill on Wednesday anyway, but it looked like it would be a tougher sell in the Senate.

Despite the teacher unions’ late afternoon press conference announcing they would be returning to work on Thursday, county locals took votes at their schools throughout the late afternoon and evening on Wednesday. Slowly, over the course of the evening, county school superintendents closed schools for Thursday as it became clear that teachers would not be back in school and busses would not be running. By 10:45 PM, all fifty-five counties were closed for Thursday.

The rank-and-file teachers and school service personnel were right to be skeptical of the state senate’s willingness to pass the pay raise bill. Rather than immediately voting on the bill on Thursday — a move that likely would have put an end to the strike — Senate president Mitch Carmichael assigned the bill to the Senate Finance Committee. Carmichael attempted to divide public employees by stating that he wanted the Finance Committee to amend the bill to use the extra $58 million invented by the governor (which he said didn’t actually exist) to fund PEIA, instead of raises. Given that Carmichael had previously been adamantly opposed to raising revenue to fund PEIA, teachers and school service personnel saw this proposal for what it was — an attempt to derail the deal, prolong the strike and turn public sentiment against them.

On Friday, the Senate Finance Committee refused to take up the pay raise bill at all, and a motion to discharge the bill from committee to be voted on by the full senate failed. Senator Carmichael’s attempt to turn public sentiment against the strike backfired as students, school superintendents, and Governor Justice (anxious to preserve his deal) all denounced Senate Republicans on Friday for failing to pass the bill.

Students from Boone County, which has one of the poorest school systems in the state and has been hard hit by the recent decline of coal mining, led a rally at the capitol in support of their striking teachers and service personnel. County school superintendents from forty-five counties met with the governor and with the Senate president to encourage him to move the bill. “We’re going to be out of school due to Senate leadership. Fifty-five superintendents agree,” the superintendent from Monroe County said after the meeting.

Senator Carmichael continued to insist that the Senate should not hastily approve the pay raise because the state has suffered major budget shortfalls in recent years and its fiscal situation is precarious — an ironic statement given that Senator Carmichael was the lead sponsor of a bill introduced earlier this year to cut the business inventory tax for large corporations by $140 million a year.

It is unclear how this standoff between striking public employees and Senate Republican leaders will end, but if nothing else, this week’s decision to keep striking is a reminder that the rank and file can lead.

Indeed, this strike has been driven by rank and file workers from the beginning. When Mingo County announced that it would be the first county to walk out, on February 2, the head of the county local told the paper that state union leaders “kind of suggested that we hold off on it to see what happens, but our people were so fired up about it they said, ‘No we’re not waiting, we’re going to do this now,’ so we did.” The state WVEA president replied that he was neither encouraging nor discouraging county walkouts.

And when state union leaders organized a ten thousand-strong rally at the capitol on February 17 and announced a two-day statewide walkout for the following week, the plan had been for that statewide walkout to be followed by rolling walkouts by a handful of counties each day. But by the second day of the statewide walkout, the mood at the capitol (with chants of “See you Monday! See you Tuesday!”) was such that the unions reevaluated and announced the statewide walkout would continue until demands were met.

The strike is actively making the teachers unions more democratic. County locals are organizing mass meetings, phone trees, and text loops and making demands on their state leaders. The anger at union leaders over this week’s deal — and how it was presented to members without a vote — shows that much more work could be done if the rank and file are serious about wanting a more democratic union.

In many ways the deal negotiated between union leaders and Governor Justice kicks the can. The PEIA task force will be making recommendations to the 2019 legislature. The 2019 legislature may also be faced with the task of filling a hole in the budget if Justice’s new revenue projections prove overly optimistic. Kicking the can is not necessarily a bad thing. It has required a historic statewide wildcat strike to get the current legislature to the point of considering a meaningful pay raise for public employees. And there is an election between now and 2019.

The strike has been driven by the rank and file so far. And, if the deal passes the Senate, it will be up to the rank and file to organize for November and ensure that the 2019 legislature is more receptive to working-class demands.