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Lauren Peace, the writer of this article, which appeared in the New York Times, is a reporter in Rochester, New York.
Morgantown, W.Va. — The rolling hills of West Virginia, where I grew up, are home to some of my fondest memories. But time and time again, I’ve watched them serve as a backdrop to injustice and negligence by those who lead, often at the expense of a vulnerable population.
This time, it’s our schoolchildren.
At $45,622, West Virginia teachers are the 48th lowest earning in the nation, according to the National Education Association. The minimum salary is just over $32,000. After months of tension over issues including salaries and health insurance costs, the state’s public schoolteachers went on strike Feb. 22.
On Friday, our state legislators refused to take action on a bill that would, over time, give West Virginia teachers a proposed 5 percent raise, and so the statewide work stoppage continued for a seventh day, with 250,000 students out from school as a result.
Despite the loss in critical class time, the fight cannot end prematurely.
As students remain at home, and families struggle to find alternative forms of child care, teachers have to trust that West Virginians will do what West Virginians do best; lean on each other.
We’ve seen it happening already. Students turn to classmates to study for Advanced Placement exams. Neighbors offer up their homes as oases while parents are at work. But it will take more than an internal, neighborly effort to realize what the work stoppage is all about: long-term, systematic change.
It’s easy to feel like West Virginia’s teachers are gaining national momentum when the state’s name has appeared in national headlines this week. But the coverage has merely scratched the surface of a complex issue that predates these school closings. It is rooted in a history of West Virginia politicians putting the interests of outsiders looking to make a quick buck off the state’s beautiful land before the needs of the people who live on it.
We’ve seen it in flimsy safety and environmental regulations, which have resulted in the deaths of countless miners, and in the chemical spills that have plagued surrounding populations, leaving citizens without drinking water and living on poisoned land. We’ve seen it in the opioid crisis, too, where powerful drug companies made sure that pills were plenty, but options for treatment continue to be scarce.
And now we see it in education, where teachers, the single most valuable resource available to children in this state, and therefore the most powerful influence in guiding us toward a prosperous future, were presented with a health insurance plan that amounted to a pay cut, all while senators, who receive hefty checks from gas and energy companies, could have funded education needs had they passed a modest tax increase on these companies.
This isn’t the first time West Virginia teachers have demonstrated statewide unity. In 1990, an 11-day work stoppage over similar issues led to better wages, but the increase was temporary.
That’s why when James C. Justice, our Republican governor, announced Tuesday that he had reached an agreement with union leaders and told teachers to go back to work, with nothing more than a good-faith handshake, those on the ground thought better of it.
Despite top-down orders from their union leaders to return to classes, county by county, teachers got together. They met in public spaces and communicated diligently with their neighbors, and on Wednesday night, the teachers of all 55 counties made the decision, collectively, to extend the work stoppage on their own terms.
They kept schools closed on Thursday and Friday, and say they will continue the strike until the Senate passes the proposed raise; 55 counties united, shouting “this time will be different.”
“Over the course of Wednesday, you saw every single county in the state just clawing to get back together, and we did it,” said Kat Devlin, an English teacher at University High School in Morgantown. “This is the prime example of a grass-roots movement. It’s the teachers and the people on the ground making this happen.”
This is about more than livable wages. It’s about haves and have-nots, it’s about workers’ dignity, and it’s going to set the bar for labor organizers everywhere.
The teachers of West Virginia are leading the way with a conviction that should be a national example for challenging inequity.
When they get back into their classrooms, hopefully sooner rather than later, they must talk to their students about how, under intense pressure, and with little more than the support they found in each other, they fought for what was right, and they were heard.
Lauren Peace (@LaurenMPeace) is a reporter at the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester.