On Thursday, February 22, thousands of public school teachers in all 55 counties in West Virginia walked out of their classrooms in protest over low wages and exorbitant healthcare costs. Eight school days later, on March 5, classrooms are still empty. It’s the state’s longest teacher strike in two decades.
The strike began after West Virginia Governor Jim Justice approved legislation on the 22 that would grant teachers, school service personnel, and police officers a 2% pay increase; West Virginia schoolteachers make an average of $45,240 per year, the 47th lowest in the country. But the salary is only part of the issue. Teachers and other public servants receive health insurance through the Public Employees Insurance Agency, which is funded 80% by employers like county school systems, and 20% by employees. The state program, though, is running out of money, and in response, threatening to raise employee costs. For some teachers, their premiums are set to double this year.
“This is something that’s been brewing for several years,” says Jennifer Wood, spokesperson for the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the two teachers’ unions, along with the West Virginia Education Association, associated with the strike. “Teachers have not gotten a raise in the past four to five years, and the cost of living has increased for everyone–it was this kind of perfect storm of circumstances for a strike to occur.”
When last Wednesday, Justice instead proposed a pay hike of 5%, the teachers overrode their unions, which approved the compromise, and continued to strike, saying that the raise alone fails to address healthcare costs–and members of the state Senate have also dragged their feet on passing the bill.
As it currently stands, the strike goes on–despite the fact that West Virginia unions do not have collective bargaining power and cannot technically strike. But the result of it could fundamentally reshape a West Virginia that has, for decades, been losing young people to other states as its own coal-based economy dwindles. A strong educational system lies at the base of the diverse economy West Virginia desperately needs to phase out its dependence on natural resources mining, and the teachers, by refusing to settle for unlivable salaries and costs, are re-centering the role of education in the state.
For the past 200 years, the mining and production of coal for energy has monopolized the economy of West Virginia. No longer. The state produces half the coal it did a decade ago, and mining jobs have declined 40% in the past five years; some counties have seen employment drop by as much as 70%. In 2017, West Virginia was declared the worst state for business; it was one of just seven whose GDP shrank over the course of the year.
The state educational system is at the heart of all of this. Teachers and public employees are feeling the effects of the dwindling coal economy–but they’re also the best bet for the state to build a new path out of it.
That path, necessarily, should involve a variety of new industries, powered by people with roots in the state. That’s what Brandon Dennison, a West Virginia native and resident, is hoping to do with his organization, Coalfield Development Corporation, which trains former miners for jobs in five industries–reforestation, arts and creative work, sustainable agriculture, community development and construction, and renewable energy. Dan Conant, a West Virginian solar energy entrepreneur who’s partnering with Dennison on the renewable energy initiative told Fast Company last summer that “we’ve got to act now to build other industries, and it can’t just be one thing because that’s what got us here in the first place.”
While the northern part of the state is seeing a slight economic boom due to growth in natural gas production, Wood is concerned leaning too heavily upon that industry will repeat the mistakes of coal. “This shows that the best opportunity we have for economic growth is an energy industry that’s still cyclical,” she says. “I would love to see us diversify.” Organizers like Conant and Dennison agree–last summer, they noted that looming cuts to the state education system were a cause for concern about the direction the state was heading in–but also a galvanizing force for the type of work they’re trying to bring to West Virginia.
The vast majority of people who grow up and go to school in West Virginia leave the state for work; when every surrounding state pays teachers more than West Virginia, Wood says, it’s hard for the state to retain talent–there are currently 725 teacher vacancies that the state cannot fill. This situation creates a cycle of disinvestment in education–when the state does not invest in teachers and a strong educational system, young students grow up disadvantaged; those that make it through the educational system and show promise tend to leave the state behind, and those that stay, now that the coal industry is all but gone, fall into unemployment.
“When a company is looking to where they can relocate and build a new office or manufacturing plant, they look at somewhere where they can attract top-notch employees who want to put roots down,” Wood says. “If we don’t have highly qualified teachers in our classrooms, we can’t sell ourselves as a great place to come and do business.”
Nor can the state sell itself as a place where young people can count on building a future for themselves. What Dennison and Conant, and Natalie Roper with Generation West Virginia, which last year launched a fellowship to attract young talent to the state, are doing is creating a pipeline that could, with enough scale and investment, lead to more jobs and more opportunities in West Virginia, and give young students a way to aspire to making a difference in their home state.
A strong educational system must exist in the state for a diversified economy to take off. And though West Virginia’s economy is in dire straits, there are decisions the legislature could make to create more funding for teachers and healthcare, and they involve raising taxes on coal, natural gas, and manufacturing corporations, which politicians have been reluctant to do.
That’s why this strike is so crucial. The teachers are showing that the status quo of West Virginia can no longer hold sway in the state. They’re making the case that education cannot remain subject to the whims of a unilateral economy. The work that teachers and public employees do should form the backbone of the state’s new economy, not remain collateral damage to the failings of its current one. “Education is much more at the center of economic development than anyone really understands,” Wood says.