Teachers advocate for all state employees
HUNTINGTON — For about two weeks, it was nearly impossible to move through the Capitol rotunda to get from one chamber to the next because thousands of West Virginia teachers were advocating for better pay and better insurance for all state employees during a nine-day strike in all 55 counties.
Some of the lowest paid in the nation, the teachers had not received a pay raise in four years as healthcare costs continued to rise.
The strike was in response to what teachers believed were unmet promises. The Legislature passed and Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill giving state employees a 2 percent raise for 2019, and 1 percent raise for 2020 and a 1 percent raise for 2021, plus a freeze on premiums for the Public Employees Insurance Agency, or PEIA.
Teachers said the 5 percent over four years was not enough to keep up with health insurance costs, even with the freeze of premiums this year, and service personnel and other state workers would get even less.
So after a rally with an estimated 10,000 teachers, state workers and members from other unions on the Capitol steps, teachers in all 55 counties shut down school during a walkout lasting from Feb. 22 to March 7.
During the strike, teachers filled the Capitol, literally, and could be heard chanting even through the closed chamber doors.
At one point, Justice declared the strike over after meeting with union leaders, but the Senate failed to pass the 5 percent raise agreed upon and the strike continued.
Finally, on March 7, the governor signed a bill giving all state workers a 5 percent raise. Along with the raise came the promise to form the PEIA Task Force to find solutions to the struggling insurance program.
The task force held public hearings across the state in the fall and is still working toward a solution. Justice has pledged to commit $1 million to PEIA, and state funding for the program for the next fiscal year will remain the same.
The strike was the longest in state history and inspired teachers in other states, including Arizona, Kentucky and Oklahoma to lead similar walkouts.