Brighton One of the undercurrents of my long slough across Europe and the United Kingdom has been the close attention and excitement roused by the West Virginia teachers and their dramatic, and ultimately successful, strike. In Bulgaria, one of our number was from West Virginia and first called the plan to my attention as the first of a kind in his state where teachers without even a collective bargaining agreement had decided to take action after being offered an insulting one-percent raise for each of five consecutive years along with an increase in health insurance benefits that would decimate any of those proposed legislative increases. Given that West Virginia teachers and school workers are always in the race for lowest paid in the country with states in the deep South, the fact that they were saying “enough is enough” was inspiration in and of itself.
Originally, we had heard the plan was for a two-day strike, then more days began to be added on, and I began to follow the whole affair more and more closely, as the teachers’ conviction seemed to be deepening. When they rejected a negotiated deal between the governor and union leaders that would have given them more money – as well as all state employees – because both houses of the legislature had not agreed and the insurance mess was still not resolved, then I could tell we were watching some real freedom fighters that would change the state of West Virginia and perhaps more. Finally, they won a 5% increase and the package they needed from the Governor and legislative leaders. Mossbacks that threatened that they would balance the state budget for the wage increases by taking it out of Medicaid, essentially trying to punish the poor to upbraid their own workers, the Governor had to assure the teachers that this would never happen.
Part of the reason the strike was being followed so closely in recent days was because many university employees have started a rolling strike in England. Several of our members in Sheffield had to leave as soon as the screening ended because they had picket line duty the next day. In Brighton last night ACORN leaders were buzzing and running out to make calls and catch the news since several worked as administrative staff at Sussex and other area universities. The issue here has been a proposal to change the pension from a defined benefit to a defined contribution scheme, which many have no doubt accurately calculated would cost them thousands of pounds now and even more in lost benefits in the future. 61 of more than 100 universities are participating, and the tactic thus far has been one day out the first week, two the second, three the third, and so on, and now preparation for a week-long strike in coming days.
Will they win? Hard to say, but they want to be West Virginians now, and many are hoping that these pushbacks by labor at the grassroots rank-and-file are a sign of change in the labor movement and a message to employers and politicians everywhere that working families are now drawing the line.