Late in this winter of organized labor’s discontent, the green shoots of what some are calling the “West Virginia Spring” have broken through.
A dramatic and possibly illegal statewide job walk-off by 35,000 public school employees in West Virginia that began Feb. 22 ended Tuesday in a victory for the educators — a raise five times higher than what the state’s governor had first proposed and a promise to attempt to curb their rising health insurance premiums.
Parents and other residents had rallied around the strikers during the nine days when schools in all 55 counties were closed. This put enormous pressure on the Republican legislature and Republican Gov. Jim Justice to do better by their teachers, currently the third worst paid in the country, according to the National Education Association.
Coincidentally, on the third school day of the strike, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, a case that seems likely to further erode the dwindling power of the union movement.
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That case pits Mark Janus, an employee of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, the union that represents Janus and some 40,000 other state workers.
Simply put, Janus doesn’t want to support the union, not even with “fair-share” dues that cover only the costs of representing employees in disputes with management and in collective bargaining. Janus contends that requiring public employees to support the union in any way violates their free-speech rights. And most observers are sure that a majority of the justices will side with him.
This is likely to weaken public-sector unions, a prospect that Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is sounding positively giddy about as he runs for re-election this year.
But the Janus decision won’t affect West Virginia, as it already is a right-to-freeload state (many prefer the equally tendentious term “right-to-work.”) Teachers and other state employees there not only can’t be compelled to pay union fees, they’re also not allowed to strike or to bargain collectively.
Nevertheless, they persisted.
Without the formal involvement of union leaders or Democratic Party supporters, the educators began rallying on social media and in small gatherings to draw attention to the fact that they hadn’t had raises since 2014, and that their rising healthcare premiums, co-pays and deductibles were actually reducing their take-home pay every year.
Teachers who could were leaving for better paying states (Illinois’ average teacher salary of $61,324 is, for example, 37 percent higher than West Virginia’s average of $44,701) or taking second jobs. Some dual-educator families in West Virginia were reportedly eligible for government assistance programs. And districts were having trouble hiring qualified teachers and combining grades in classrooms.
Their frustration boiled over when Gov. Justice proposed and the state Senate passed a 1 percent raise for them earlier this year.
One reason the state’s financial condition is poor is the failure of a bipartisan initiative that began in 2006 to slash taxes — mostly on businesses — in an effort to boost the state’s economy. Yes, it ended up blowing a several-hundred-million-dollar hole in West Virginia’s budget as these bank-shot attempts at stimulus so often do, but the hole has been widened and deepened by the shrinking demand for coal, the state’s leading export.
The teachers were adamant, though, that hollowing out education was no way to bring West Virginia back. Their unofficial strike showed no signs of weakening as the days wore on.
On Tuesday came the announcement that lawmakers had agreed to give the teachers, and all state employees, a 5 percent raise, to block any cuts in health benefits until at least the middle of next year and to form a task force to address that problem long term.
The Associated Press quoted one jubilant teacher: “We overcame, we overcame! It shows (students) how democracy is supposed to work, that you don't just bow down and lay down for anybody.”
Some of that joy should be tempered, though, by the fine print that says money to pay for these raises is going to come in part by cuts to Medicaid.
Still, West Virginia teachers have shown that organized workers can still have clout in the inevitable post-Janus America if their cause is just and their resolution strong.
That idea has already spread to Oklahoma, also a right-to-freeload state, where public school teachers earn even less on average than they do in West Virginia. On Thursday, the Oklahoma Education Association union is reportedly planning to announce a statewide-shutdown strategy.
If the green shoots in the hills of West Virginia flower on the great plains, look out. Labor may not be dead yet.
Eric Zorn is an op-ed columnist and blogger for the Chicago Tribune.
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