In 2018, teachers in the U.S. state of West Virginia went on strike to protest low salaries and diminishing benefits. The strike included teachers and personnel, and they also had the support of students, students’ parents, and other supporters.
Problems and Purpose
The problems were that the teachers and other school employees of the U.S. state of West Virginia were not receiving promised raises and payroll tax deductions that kept up with the rising cost-of-living. The implementation of new rules that increased premiums on their insurance programs . In addition, the insurance program was also becoming more complex and invasive with premiums and deductibles being determined by income even if it included supplemental second and third jobs, and they were also displeased with Go365, a health tracking app, which they were required to use to monitor their health . Furthermore, the teachers were striking illegally as the state bans state government employees from having the right to strike or engage in collective bargaining . The purpose of the strike was for teachers to pressure the state government to raise their salaries and negotiate the premiums of their insurance.
Background History and Context
Teachers of West Virginia were some of the worst paid teachers in the United States, ranking 48th in average salary among other states and last among neighboring states . They also received salaries that were over 20% less than the national average. The teachers also experienced increased premiums on their health insurance even though the coverage was also cut . This was the first state-wide teacher strike in West Virginia since 1990 . The state also had a law that prohibits all state government employees (including public school teachers and other public-school personnel) from engaging in collective bargaining or striking .
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The strike was organized by West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia branch of the American Federation of Teachers.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Participants were the teachers both unionized and non-unionized and other school employees such as administration, bus drivers, cooks, etc. The unionized teachers were recruited by their respective unions, and non-unionized teachers and other school employees joined in solidarity. Nearly 20,000 teachers participated . Students, students’ parents, and other supporters attended protests at the state capital, but they were self-selected to do so in support.
Methods and Tools Used
Organizers utilized emails to union members, face-to-face meetings, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, news outlets to communicate their intentions, livestreaming via Facebook Live, messaging services such as text messaging and iMessage, and rallies and mass gatherings at the state capital . Union leaders held meetings with state officials. The teachers created leverage for themselves when their strike forced schools to close.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The initial idea of a strike was developed in a Facebook group in the Fall of 2017, and this idea developed into discussions about striking in January 2018. Face-to-face meetings in January led to a strike among the schools in the southern region of the state during the first week of February. A second strike occurred the third week of February, and although it included the majority of the counties, not all counties participated. The third strike, beginning February 22, was the start of the statewide strike. The incremental steps leading up to the state-wide strike was fueled by livestreaming. With each strike teachers became more aware and felt more connected: the livestreaming and social media allowed for easier coordination than what was possible in the past .
The teachers went on strike to protest the low salary increases that didn’t meet what the Governor had promised. The day before the strike occurred the state superintendent, Steven Paine, reminded the teachers and general public that a teacher strike is illegal , and he expressed his support for state agencies and school boards to appropriately take action as needed. None of the agencies or school boards took any action towards the teachers.
The schools were ultimately closed for 9 days. Teachers and school personnel as well as many of their students, student’s parents, and supporters joined at the state capitol together to protest and show support for what the teachers were trying to achieve. The protest and pressure on the state government grew the longer students weren’t able to attend school. There was also public outcry among communities due to parents of students who were forced to stay home from work with their children or take their children to work with them if possible. However, the public outcry wasn’t against the teachers’ aspirations but the inconvenience the strike had on the community. The community overall was supportive. “If they’re not paid what they’re worth, they’re going to leave. So, I will watch these kids until the cows come home if I have to. I’m happy to do this” . Many schools continued to provide meals for students who were able to make their way to the school for meals. Many churches, community centers, and community members throughout the state attempted to alleviate stress caused by the strike by offering places for students to go during the days and also offering meals to students who depended on school meals .
The governor and union leaders agreed to a 5% pay increase, but the teachers and school personnel kept striking due to the lack of tangible legislation guaranteeing the pay increase . The strike continued even as the GOP governor and GOP-controlled state house agreed to meet the teachers-unions demands, but the GOP controlled state senate continued to resist claiming the increased funding wasn’t fiscally possible . The governor criticized the senate for its vote calling for them to prioritize the affected children over politics. The governor ultimately convinced the senate to pass the bill raising wages for state employees including teachers.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The state government of West Virginia ultimately gave the teachers’ unions the pay raise of five percent they demanded: it benefited not only them but all state employees in West Virginia . Unfortunately, no significant change occurred with the state insurance program due to the state legislature’s inability to pass a comprehensive bill, but they did make small amendments to it. The state legislature has since proposed controversial bills that aim to create a charter school system, allow teachers to be fired for striking, and not allow superintendents to close schools during teacher strikes.
West Virginia teachers were the first to move and caused a domino effect of teacher strikes since then across the nation, with Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and 14 other states all having state-wide, city-wide, or district protests. Many of these protests have been successful in yielding policy change, increased funding, and salary raises in their states and school systems.
Unions have been on the decline for decades, but movements such as these are providing positive outcomes and have encouraged and strengthened attitudes towards unions among their members and the public in the past 18 months. Union activity has increased across industries , and it has been at the forefront of politics lately with DNC presidential debates, independent ride-share drivers’ disruptive protest in several cities, and as of this writing the current nation-wide United Auto Workers (UAW) protest against General Motors costing GM nearly $25 million per day.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The purpose of the strike was to increase teacher pay, decrease healthcare deductibles and co-pays, and to stop decreasing healthcare coverage. The participants were successful in getting the legislation passed that solidified the pay increase . Unfortunately, there wasn’t any successful legislation to address the rising cost of their health insurance or declining health coverage . However, many bills opposed by the teacher unions weren’t passed .
The process proved the effectiveness of unionization to achieved shared goals. Also, the strike showed how public support can increase pressure on government entities to amend standing policies to create improved conditions for participants involved. Participatory governance was also in play especially when strikers defied union leaders to continue to strike in order to achieve a better outcome than what the union leaders were able to achieve .
 Caffee, A. (2019, May 8). Teacher salaries in America. Niche. Retrieved from: https://www.niche.com/blog/teacher-salaries-in-america/
 Dirnbach, E. (2019, February 15). U.S. union membership declined in 2018 but strike activity in increased. What’s going on?. Medium. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/ @ericdirnbach/union-membership-declined-in-2018-but-strike-activity-increased-whats- going-on-9d7ed3a39ab5
 Johnson, S. (2018, February 27). Community meals, other food being provided to students across West Virginia during ongoing strike. West Virginia Metro News. Retrieved from: http://wvmetronews.com/2018/02/27/community-meals-other-food-being-provided- to-students-across-west-virginia-as-strike-continues/
 Quinn, R. (2018, March 24). A look back at the 2018 WV public school employees strike. Gazette-Mail. Retrieved from: https://www.wvgazettemail.com/2018_wv_teachers_strike /a-look-back-at-the-wv-public-school-employees-strike/article_c0dcd2db-4017-5bcd- b433-6b3afb6c3d57.html
 Robertson, C. & Bidgood, J. (2018, March 2). ‘All in or nothing’: West Virginia’s teacher strike was months in the making. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/02/us/west-virginia-teacher-strike.html
 Stewert, E. (2018, March 4). All of West Virginia’s teachers have been on strike for over a week. Vox. Retrieved from: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/3/ 17074824/west-virginia-teachers-strike-justice-union
 Tompkins, R, W. (1990, March 8). Office of the Attorney General, March 8, 1990. Office of the WV Attorney General. Retrieved from: https://ago.wv.gov/publicresources/ Documents/Opinions%201986-1994/1990-03-08%20Opinion%20letter%20signed %20by%20Roger%20Tompkins%20(M0040939xCECC6).PDF
 Reilly, K. (2018, March 6). West Virginia’s teachers are still on strike. Here’s what that means for thousands of students. Time. Retrieved from: https://time.com/5186596/west- virginia-teachers-strike-parents-students/
The first version of this case entry was written by Leslie Parker, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and then edited. The views expressed in the entry are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.