West Virginia Teachers: ‘Our strike is opening eyes’

BRUCETON MILLS, W. VA — On March 5, my wife, a retired teacher, and I waited until the temps hit the low 30s to leave our Western Maryland vacation home to visit the closest picket line of West Virginia educators and school supporting staffers on the eighth day of their strike.

We had just heard that 5,000 teachers were crowding into the state legislature in Charleston urging elected leaders to meet their demand for a five percent wage increase.

Bruceton Mills, W. Va. was only a half-hour drive. After passing under Wisp Resort’s ski slopes on U.S. Route 219, we slipped down the mountain to Friendsville on the Youghiogheny River and onto I-68, toward Morgantown.

We found about 15 teachers just off exit 23 on a patch of ground between Little Sandy’s, a landmark truck stop, and the Mill Stone Restaurant, owned by Sharon Shafer, who worked as a special education aide in the Preston County schools.

Their campfire still smoking behind them, teachers and school secretaries were bouncing colorful hand-made picket signs, waving to drivers in cars and pickup trucks. Nearly everyone behind the wheel returned their waves and sounded a horn.

Theresa Quinn, an 11-year fourth-grade teacher at the 630-student Bruceton Mills Elementary School, held a sign, saying: “Teacher, Teacher what do you see? I see corruption. What do you see?” Quinn says, “Many of our teachers aren’t even making the state’s average pay [$45,000]. We don’t have much faith in our political leaders in Charleston. I believe in being financially prudent, but we’re going backwards as a state if we don’t come up with decent pay for teachers.” There’s just no excuse for teachers to be collecting social services,” she says. Some counties, she added, had approved special levies to supplement teacher’s paychecks. Not Preston County.

Quinn’s father had worked in one of the smaller coalmines around Bruceton Mills, before the decline of the industry and the spread of natural gas drilling (“fracking”) in her region and state. “My father was never in the United Mineworkers,” says Quinn. But he always credited the union for his decent wages and benefits.”

“I’m normally a quiet person,” says Quinn. But, on two occasions, she joined her fellow fourth-grade teacher Susan Waugh, traveling 175 miles to Charleston to join loud rallies alongside thousands of members of three unions, representing 22,000 teachers and support staffs in the state. The refusal of the state’s political leaders to exact even a small increase in the severance tax on natural gas extraction to help pay teachers only fueled her activism.

“We’re 55 counties strong and we’re telling politicians who don’t support us, ‘we’ll remember in November,’” says Quinn. Association members have circulated fact sheets encouraging parents and residents to write letters and e-mails backing decent pay and benefits for school personnel. Unlike in other states, West Virginia teachers have no collective bargaining rights, but must rely upon the state legislature for wage and benefit improvements.

“We’re standing up for promises made to us in the past,” said Waugh, a 14-year teacher and representative of the Preston County Teachers Association. Teachers had only received one miniscule raise in several years; deferring wage increases in return for health insurance benefits that were also eroding. The state’s employee health insurance plan, PEIA covers 200,000 workers and their families. Waugh says. Teachers are supporting better benefits and raises for all state workers, not just themselves.

“This strike is opening people’s eyes,” said Waugh. Community support has been strong. As an example, Susan Shafer from Mill Stone Restaurant, she said, brought coffee, tea and hot chocolate out to the picket line that morning, when temperatures were in the low 20s.

“I couldn’t keep their hands and feet warm, but I could get something warm in their tummies,” says Shafer. “We have great teachers in Preston County. [Working in the classroom], I saw how much money they took out of their own pockets to provide for their students.” Underscoring Shafer’s praise for the teachers’ dedication to students was a red pickup truck just across the road from the picket line, half-full of food collected by the union members to help feed children who were missing meals while schools were shut down.

Waugh, who lives near Cooper’s Rock State Forest, has a 19-year-old daughter in college, planning a career in parks and recreation management. She says her daughter asked, “‘Mom, isn’t this strike illegal?’” Waugh outlined the importance of making sacrifices to support better education in the state. Low teacher pay has left over 700 vacancies filled by substitutes, with many teachers leaving for nearby Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia for higher pay. The number of education majors in the state’s colleges and universities has dropped and many teachers are working on special permits but are still uncertified. After her explanation, Waugh says, “My daughter said she’s proud of me for standing up.”

Fellow picketer Susan Moran, a school secretary and a member of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, echoed Waugh’s concern over the quality of the state’s educational system. “My son was educated in Preston County Schools and now has a good job working in Baltimore as director of community health services for MedStar Health,” says Moran. Ryan Moran’s now a candidate for a doctoral degree from Johns Hopkins University. “He couldn’t have done that without good math and science teachers,” she says. “Teachers do their jobs and deserve what they are fighting for,” adds Moran.

Waugh says morale is high and her co-workers’ time on the picket line has already solidified their association. “We often teach in classrooms across from each other, but don’t even have time to say hi,” says Waugh. On the picket line, her school’s staff are “catching up with each other,” passing around photos of their children and grandchildren. “It’s the good side” of the strike,” she says.

Waugh and Quinn have discussed their history curriculum in light of questions like the one raised by Waugh’s daughter about protests, unions, and strikes. “We thought back to what good unions have done. Whole generations can thank those who fought, like the United Mineworkers at the Battle of Blair Mountain, for the benefits we enjoy and are fighting for today.”

“We’re going to be teaching our fourth graders more about unions,” Waugh and Quinn said.

Led by the activist group RiseUp West Virginia, supporters of striking teachers and school personnel have established a “Go Fund Me” page setting a goal of $50,000. The fund has already amassed $267,000 dollars from 6,000 contributors.