Thirty thousand teachers and public school employees in the US state of West Virginia have won a guaranteed 5 per cent pay rise after a historic nine day strike.
The strike has electrified unionists across the US, with teachers in other states including Oklahoma and Arizona now considering following their lead.
“This was almost completely a grassroots movement,” said Erica Newsome, an English teacher in Logan County, “The unions kind of followed us.”
Under West Virginia law the strike was illegal as public employees have no legal way of taking strike action or engaging in collective bargaining.
Teachers had been offered a pay increase of 1 per cent, alongside increases to health insurance premiums. The state agency for health insurance proposed changes that would see low income families hit with increased premiums. Katie Endicott, a high school English teacher, told the New York Times, “if you had a family plan, your health insurance was going to rise substantially… I only clear right under $1300 every two weeks, and they’re wanting to take $300 more away from me.”
Rank-and-file teachers in all 55 counties voted to reject an initial agreement negotiated by union representatives with the state governor after four days on strike. It offered a 5 per cent pay increase for teachers, and 3 per cent for other public school workers like bus drivers and cafeteria workers. But there was no guarantee it would pass through the state legislature—and the teachers refused to budge.
The final agreement includes a 5 per cent pay increase for all school employees, a freeze for a year on insurance premium rises and the establishment of a task force to examine public employees’ health insurance.
The fight is not over. The state is using the cost of increased wages as a rationale for further cuts to social programs, including free community college tuition and low income health care. And while there are teacher representatives on the health insurance task force, it is still heavily weighted towards industry management and legislators.
Nevertheless, the breadth of participation in the strikes and the militancy of their illegal strike action has provided a model to other workers for how to fight back.
By Daniel Cheers