Almost exactly one year after their walkout sparked what has become a nationwide educator revolt, West Virginian teachers will be striking again, starting tomorrow. The leaders of West Virginia’s three educator unions have called the statewide strike as a response to the Republicans’ attempt to rush through a pro-privatization, anti-union omnibus bill in the state legislature.
“They’re trying to break our unions and our public education system,” explains Brandon Wolford, president of the Mingo County Education Association. “This is our only option— we have to shut schools down to force them to back down.”
Events have escalated rapidly over the past few weeks, as the Republican bill bounced back and forth between the state Senate and House. The final iteration of the Senate bill sent to the House on Monday for approval would legalize charter schools — privately-run, but publicly-funded institutions — and private vouchers, known as ESAs, which provide public funds for parents to pay for private schools. The omnibus bill would also add financial penalties for any teachers who go on strike in West Virginia.
Hoping to wrap this poison pill in a sugar coating — and aiming to pit teachers against other public sector workers — the bill also includes the 5 percent pay raise for all public employees won in last year’s strike. For Charleston educator and rank-and-file leader Jay O’Neal, “by striking, we’re basically saying ‘We refuse to take your pay raise under these conditions because we realize how bad privatization will be for our students and our schools.’”
The ability of West Virginia union militants to explain the dire consequences of charters to their co-workers was made much easier by the victorious Los Angeles strike in late January. O’Neal explains the dynamic:
Ever since our action last year, teachers here have been watching in awe as these strikes keep popping off across the country. But folks here were watching Los Angeles — the second largest district in the country — particularly closely. They saw that the main issue in LA was that privatization, and charters specifically, had decimated and defunded the schools. It really woke people up. And then, when just a week after LA won, the Senate here drops this bill — well, educators already knew why charters were so bad for our students.
Despite growing pressure from the rank-and-file — including local one-day strike votes in southern counties — union officials until this evening had hesitated to take action. Labor leaders’ hopes that the bill would be watered down sufficiently to avoid a strike were dashed by the Senate’s decision on Monday to push through a particularly vicious version of the legislation. “This is not reform, this is retaliation,” argues Wolford. “Nothing in this proposal would make things better for students or staff. How does bringing in uncertified teachers [by legalizing charters] help our kids? How does taking public money and putting it into private hands help our schools? Unfortunately, the politicians are listening to the top 1 percent instead of listening to us.”
Events are moving extremely quickly. The House is set to begin deliberating on the final bill on Tuesday. Teachers have begun organizing hard picket lines since multiple superintendents have declared their intention to keep schools open. Teachers and support personnel in those districts where district leaders have been pushed or convinced to close schools will be mobilizing in support of picket lines in neighboring counties. Like last year, educators have also already begun to prepare food to provide for students who normally depend on the schools’ free breakfasts and lunches.
It would be hard to exaggerate the nationwide stakes of this battle. Billionaire-backed privatizers understand that they need to win in West Virginia to demoralize and demobilize the strike upsurge that continues to gain steam, with Oakland educators set to begin striking this Thursday. But the powers-that-be are playing with fire by provoking a workforce that became conscious of its collective power last year. O’Neal put it well:
We started this national movement last year — so we can’t let them come and roll us over now. And it’s starting to feel now like last year’s strike was a practice round. We learned so much through our struggles and we’re definitely better prepared than when we began organizing last time. Now we know how to strike, we know how to feed our kids, we know how to stick together until we win. So if they want to try to take us down, I say bring it on. We’re prepared to stay out as long it takes.