West Virginia Teachers Strike for Increased Wages
Across the State of West Virginia, public schools have been closed for over a week as teachers protest for higher pay. Over 22,000 educators and school administrators have demanded an increase in wages from the State Government. The action comes after increased health insurance costs have cut further into the already low salaries of teachers.
The Governor of West Virginia, Republican Jim Justice, engaged in critical negotiations with leaders of the strike, and finally came to an agreement for a 5% increase in wages late last week. The State Senate initially refused to approve the budget increase, claiming that the State lacks the funding. However, on Tuesday, the Senate finally relented, approving the increase and putting an end to the stalemate.
For the thousands of teachers who walked out of their classrooms a week ago, the strike was a significant victory. They were able to achieve a major pay raise, the first in over four years, and achieve concessions from the heavily Republican State government.
Teachers in West Virginia have historically had some of the lowest wages in the nation. The average teacher makes only $44,701 per year, ranking as the 48th lowest state for wages, according to statistics from the West Virginia Teachers Union. Due to these low salaries, many teachers take up second jobs in order to afford basic living costs.
The final straw for teachers in all of the State’s 55 counties was an increased burden in insurance costs. Public education employees pay for 20% of their own insurance, provided through the Public Insurance Agency. The fees demanded from teachers has spiked in the recent months, leaving many simply unable to pay.
Though lawmakers did not act upon the rising insurance cost, an all around increase in wages was an important step. The President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, called the deal a “huge breakthrough” and local teacher Kerry Guerini said that it was a “step in the right direction.”
Budget hawks and other staunch conservatives within the West Virginia State Senate were not as optimistic about the deal. The Chairman of the Senate finance committee, Craig Blair, told reporters that in return for the wage increases, “there is going to be some pain” in the form of cuts in other important areas.
However, for the victorious West Virginia teachers, that conversation is for another day. They are busy celebrating their victory over the powerful forces of state government and anti-union politicians. Renita Benson, another protesting teacher, summed up the situation simply, stating: “It’s not the raise, as much as it is having the respect that we deserve from the government.”