Teacher unions say strike last resort, but school employees poised to walk out

Representatives of the West Virginia Education Association and American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia say school employees will strike as a last resort, but they are ready to take that action if there is not movement on four key issues. (WCHS/WVAH)

The unions that represent teachers and school service personnel in West Virginia said at a news conference Monday that a strike is a last resort, but they are poised to take that action if lawmakers and Gov. Jim Justice don’t budge on key issues such as pay and health insurance.

“All school employees are getting angrier by the moment,” said Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.

Monday’s news conference follows a meeting over the weekend where Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association ,said tabulated results from counties showed that school employees had voted overwhelmingly to go on strike.

Lee said in many counties, particularly the larger counties, the vote by school employees in favor of a strike was in excess of 90 percent. He said some counties that didn’t vote in favor of a strike the last time there was a strike in the state, in 1990, voted by more than 80 percent in favor of a strike this time around.

Leaders of the teacher unions said they must see movement on key issues, including salaries, a long-term solution to health insurance offered by the Public Employees Insurance Agency and the erosion of teacher rights and seniority.

While the union leaders said there is no “magic number” as far as raises, they said they would favor a multi-year package like the one proposed in an amendment that was defeated in the Legislature. Cambell said that proposal, offered by Del. Tim Miley, D-Harrison, called for 3 percent annual increases over three years.

The Senate passed a bill that would give teachers 1 percent annual pay raises over the next five years. The House has other ideas. On Wednesday, the House Finance Committee approved a 2 percent increase for teachers followed by three years of a 1 percent increase.

Union leaders said they are having discussions with the governor’s office and legislative leaders to try to resolve the crisis. Meanwhile, Lee said before a “much bigger act” of a statewide strike, there would be town hall meetings, walk-ins, rallies and some one-day walkouts in some counties that would close schools.

"No one wants to see this culminate into a strike," Lee said. "A strike is the last activity that will be used and is certainly not something our members take lightly. Strikes are disruptive to employees' lives and livelihoods. It will also disrupt the routine of our students and families we serve."

The teacher unions, said, however, that school employees are tired of waiting, and action must be taken or they will walk out the door, an action that has not been taken statewide in 28 years.

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