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By Jaclyn Diaz
West Virginia teachers will head back to their classrooms March 1 after a four-day strike ended with an agreement that includes a 5 percent raise for the educators.
Gov. Jim Justice (R) and leaders of the three unions representing the teachers and school service personnel met Feb. 27 to hash out a plan to end the strike that closed every public school in the state.
Schools remained closed Feb. 28 for a brief “cooling off period,” Justice said during a news conference after meeting with union leaders.
The state Legislature still needs to approve the proposal. An amended bill including the proposed pay increases was headed to the House Finance Committee by the afternoon of Feb. 28. The legislative session ends March 10.
Other unions in states with limited bargaining power could look at West Virginia as a success story to emulate, Paul F. Clark, director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Pennsylvania State University, said.
“This strike could serve as a model for teachers in other states that do not have collective bargaining rights or the right to strike as a way to improve their salary and benefits,” Clark said. “This might suggest to other public sector workers that this is a strategy that we can use. This is collective action outside of the legal framework for bargaining.”
The strike originally began Feb. 22, the day after Justice signed a bill that provided a 2 percent raise for teachers and a 1 percent bump for other state employees. The unions said that didn’t go far enough to address the larger economic issues facing teachers.
Public school unions in West Virginia don’t negotiate contracts directly with individual school districts, as happens in other states. Instead, the pay scale is set by the state Legislature.
The teachers reserve the right to strike again if lawmakers don’t pass the legislation, West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee and American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia President Christine Campbell said Feb. 27. The third union representing school service workers is the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.
When the unions first announced the strike, state Superintendent of Schools Dr. Steven L. Paine and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said the action was “unlawful” and that the state was considering taking legal action against the unions for picketing. But no action was taken.
Other teacher unions have gone on an illegal or unlawful strike in the past, so the West Virginia action isn’t new, said Paula B. Voos, director of undergraduate programs in Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University. She said she’s not surprised this effort was successful.
“Illegal strikes could be popular,” she said. “Making a strike illegal would make it less common, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen or that they won’t be successful.”
Some teachers continued protests at the state Capitol Feb. 28, expressing disappointment with the deal because it doesn’t address the costs of their health insurance plan, which they consider high.
The employees are enrolled in the West Virginia’s Public Employee Insurance Agency, which has been a point of contention in negotiations. The unions previously told Bloomberg Law that the raises previously signed into law by Justice wouldn’t go far because of the high premiums.
Justice froze premium increases for 16 months ahead of the strike. On Feb. 28, Justice and the three unions announced that a joint task force will be created to find a long-term solution for the program. It will consist of educators, public service personnel, health-care professionals, and legislators.
The other state employees would get 3 percent raises under the new proposal.
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