Energy running high among teachers in West Virginia
HUNTINGTON — Nearly a century ago, famed labor hero Mother Harris Jones quipped her most famous proverb, one that Cabell County American Federation of Teachers President Amy Neal applied to the current day:
“Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”
Just as Jones and the southern coalfields miners had 100 years earlier, West Virginia’s teachers are again writing a new chapter in the state’s storied history of labor conflict. If the energy among them was at 98 percent to start the week, Neal said, it fired up to 198 percent by Friday.
“I guess (Senate President Mitch) Carmichael wants us to get paid in scrip. I don’t know,” Neal said. “Well, the company store is now closed.”
A longtime health teacher at Cabell Midland High School, Neal participated in the state’s first teachers’ strike in 1990, which lasted 11 days during the West Virginia legislative session that year. While Cabell County did not elect to strike 28
“I guess (Senate President Mitch) Carmichael wants us to get paid in scrip.”
American Federation of Teachers president
years ago, it was one of the first to organize a work stoppage this year, along with neighboring Wayne as well as Mingo, Logan and Wyoming counties — the latter three cradles of the miner rebellions of the early 20th century.
Thousands of teachers have used the statewide two-day work stoppage Thursday and Friday to demonstrate at the West Virginia Capitol as the Legislature discusses amendments to bills regarding the Public Employees Insurance Agency — the main crux of the conflict with potentially rising health care costs — and salary increases. West Virginia currently ranks 48th among states for teachers’ salary and also ranked 48th during the 1990 strike.
Lawmakers have voted to freeze changes to the state’s health insurance program and approved salary increases of 2 percent for next year and 1 percent a year for two years after that. Many lawmakers say the state can’t afford any more because of continued uncertainty over state revenues. Teachers have also been the target of criticism for disrupting children’s education and seeking health benefits that many in the private sector do not have.
Hours before teacher and school personnel unions called for continuing the work stoppage into Monday, Neal said teachers have the momentum to see this through to the end.
“I know so. Here’s the deal: We have nothing to lose. All we have to lose is lower pay and a horrible insurance package,” Neal said.
Back in Huntington, teachers from Central City Elementary School demonstrated to a cacophony of supportive horns at the corner of 1st Street and 5th Avenue. Between the near-constant blare of beeps and chants of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” interviews had to be spoken at a yell.
“People have their heart and soul into it now,” said Jennifer Fet, a teacher of nine years instructing first grade. “It’s firing people up. There were 55 counties at the Capitol yesterday, there’s 55 counties back at the Capitol today, and I don’t see it dying down any time soon.
“I really do believe everybody is in it to the end.”
As nearby Marco’s Pizza started offering a free lunch for demonstrators, 24-year veteran teacher Dawn Legrow added the ongoing dispute is harder for younger teachers, but it’s become much easier to step forward with as much public support as they’ve received.
“I think we’ve sat back and been complacent for so long and hoped that the right people would do the right things,” Legrow said. “Then we kind of woke up and thought, ‘We’re taking care of the kids, but nobody is taking care of us.’”
Legrow echoed Neal’s sentiment that teachers feel they’re fighting for all public employees, many others who are either not allowed or not organized enough to openly demonstrate. Her husband, she added, is a Marshall University professor and also on PEIA.
“We’re fighting for the people who aren’t allowed to fight or can’t fight,” she said. “If you have the ability to (fight), you need to do it. If you can’t, we understand and we’re going to fight for you, and hopefully you’ll reap the benefits, too.”
Even if teachers chose to return to school without the issue resolved, Legrow said they will continue their job as they always had, but keep the fire alive to the end.
“We’re not going to give up on either: the kids or us,” Legrow said.
Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter @BishopNash.
“I think we’ve sat back and been complacent for so long and hoped that the right people would do the right things. Then we kind of woke up and thought, ‘We’re taking care of the kids, but nobody is taking care of us.’”
Dawn Legrow teacher of 24 years