West Virginia Communities Unite Behind Historic Teacher Strike

West Virginia Communities Unite Behind Historic Teacher Strike

It’s day four of the West Virginia teachers’ strike, in which nearly 20,000 teachers across the state are demanding higher pay and better health insurance.

On Tuesday, union leaders finally secured a meeting with Republican Governor Jim Justice—meaning the strike could end today if demands are met. The teachers, coordinated by the American Federation of Teachers–West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association, technically are barred from striking, so their recent approach is not only brave, but highlights the urgency of their difficulties: Many teachers are forced to take second jobs to make ends meet, and low salaries (teacher pay in West Virginia ranks 48th in the country) and inadequate benefits likely contribute to West Virginia’s teacher shortage.

Justice, a billionaire, signed into law meager pay raises last week, which prompted the walkout, had admonished the nearly 20,000 striking teachers—and 10,000 striking support staff—saying they “should be appreciative of where [they] are” and “should be back in the classroom.” Justice did propose raising the natural gas severance tax, saying the revenue could provide raises for teachers.

Residents and local businesses are demonstrating their support by bringing food, water, and coffee, to the teachers, says Chad Webb, the partnership coordinator of Reconnecting McDowell, an AFT-led county revitalization initiative. “Driving through McDowell County, businesses have [signs saying] ‘We support our teachers.’”

Local support for what amounts to the largest teachers’ strike in state history—across all 55 counties—is a continuation of West Virginia’s rich legacy of labor activism, with some teachers even wearing red bandanas—an homage to the coal miners of the early 20th-century labor battles, who wore red bandanas and were thus called “rednecks.”

Just over the state border, teachers in Pittsburgh, a city that shares that same strong labor history, are planning to strike this Friday if their union and the school district cannot reach a contract agreement.