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Why the remarkable West Virginia teachers strike is not over after eight days

Teachers and demonstrators hold signs during a rally outside the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston on Friday. A week ago, thousands of public school teachers in West Virginia went out on strike, a rare but familiar union-organized action to protest low wages and rising health-care costs. (Scott Heins/Bloomberg)

Whether you support the now eight-day-old strike of teachers in West Virginia, there is no other way to look at it than as remarkable.

Educators in the entire state — who are among the lowest paid in the United States — stayed out for the eighth day of their strike Monday, demanding that the state legislature approve a 5 percent boost in wages that was negotiated by the Republican governor, Jim Justice, and public-sector unions. The fact that the strike may not be legal has not deterred them.

More than 22,000 in all 55 school districts in West Virginia have stood up for their themselves — surprising the political establishment and even some union leaders with a determination not seen since the last strike in the state, nearly 30 years ago. What’s more, teachers in at least one more state may follow; some in Oklahoma are organizing for a statewide strike.

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“We feel like we’re under attack constantly,” said Cody Thompson, a social studies and civics teacher at Elkins High School in Elkins, W.Va., who was quoted by the Associated Press. “Eventually, whenever you’re pushed into a corner, you’ve got to push back.”

West Virginia has a poverty rate of more than 17 percent, and many of the 277,000 students in the state get breakfast and lunch at school, so teachers and others are collecting food to distribute to students who might not otherwise eat.

Teachers in West Virginia and across the country have complained for years about low salaries and poorly resourced schools, but the action in West Virginia shows that educators are tired of just complaining. Beginning teachers in West Virginia make $32,435 a year, and the average teacher salary is $44,701, according to the state teachers union. The state ranked 48th in average teacher salaries in 2016, according to National Education Association data. Many teachers hold second jobs to make ends meet, and that could be harder as health-care costs rise.

Teachers and other state employees in West Virginia get health coverage through the state-run Public Employees Insurance Agency, which gets 80 percent of its funds from employers and 20 percent from employees. Both employers and employees are going to have to pay more, but teachers say they can’t afford to pay more.

Ironically, at the very time that teachers are standing firm on their demands, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case that could deal a severe blow to public-sector unions, Janus v. AFSCME. An Illinois public-sector employee, Mark Janus, sued the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, arguing that a state law allowing the union to charge and collect fees from nonmembers, including himself, violates First Amendment rights.

The decision could affect laws in 22 states that allow public-sector unions to charge and collect “agency” or “fair share” fees from public employees who aren’t members. The fees are allowed because contracts negotiated by unions cover their own members as well as nonmembers, and a previous Supreme Court agreed that the unions should be able to charge something for their negotiating services.

The court considered a similar case two years ago but split when there were only eight justices. The deciding vote could come from the newest member, Neil M. Gorsuch, who was appointed by President Trump and who many expect to side against the unions.

The West Virginia teachers strike began after Justice signed a 2 percent pay raise for educators. After Justice and the union agreed to a 5 percent hike, the state House of Delegates approved it. But the state Senate refused, saying there were insufficient funds. Teachers refused to return to their classrooms.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said that the forces behind the Janus case are hoping to end the power of public-sector unions. She said:

“The funders backing the Janus case and the Supreme Court Justices who want to eliminate collective bargaining with the hope that such a move would silence workers need only to look at West Virginia for what will happen if they get their way. A loss of collective bargaining would lead to more activism and political action, not less. Collective bargaining exists as way for workers and employers to peacefully solve labor relations.
“Once you throw that out the window, the only other path for voice and economic gains is through politics and legislation. That’s exactly the case in West Virginia, which lacks collective bargaining, where thousands of teachers mobilized and took on the governor and legislature for their failure to provide teachers with the economic dignity and voice they deserve — and that kind of activism will be multiplied and magnified across the country if collective bargaining is struck down.”

The last time teachers in West Virginia went out on strike was in 1990, when the state attorney general at the time, Roger W. Tompkins, issued an opinion saying that it was unlawful because there is no right to strike against the state, and the state Supreme Court agreed. The Gazette-Mail reported that West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee, when asked whether the new strikes were illegal, responded, “probably, yes.” It also reported:

Lee said he didn’t want to speculate on what the consequences for school employees might be, but said: “We’ve informed educators across the state on all the legal questions and everything else. This is an action that they overwhelmingly voted for us to call, and we called it.”