West Virginia teacher shares national movement with delegates

At the EC/TK-12 Council meeting on Friday night, President Rico Tamayo thanked West Virginia teacher Angela Johnson for staying up late to Skype with the council about the successful strike she was part of in her state. She brushed it off.

“We’re teachers,” she said. “We never sleep.”

Public schools in all 55 West Virginia counties closed for the nine-day teacher strike. West Virginia teachers are the 48th lowest paid in the country, and Johnson said they haven’t had a raise since 1990. On top of that, their benefit costs were about to go up.

“The cost of our health insurance was about to double,” she said. “For my family it was going to go from $320 a month to $650.”

Johnson said there was a huge rally on February 17, where they decided to have a rolling walkout (the state doesn’t have collective bargaining and walkouts are illegal), with five counties going out. By the time the state filed injunctions, another five counties would walk out.

“The United Mine Workers of America stood with us in solidarity,” Johnson said. “I was jumping up and down and cheering with 10,000 teachers in the pouring rain.”

The state did nothing for a couple of days, then they met with union leaders and offered a 2 percent raise and a task force to study benefits. Teachers didn’t accept.

“That’s not what we asked for,” Johnson said. “We asked for a 5 percent raise for all public employees and to fix our health insurance.”

So the teachers stayed out.

“All we have is ourselves and our voices and we made ourselves heard,” Johnson said. “We’re loud and proud and we stood our ground. It was a David versus Goliath, and the underdog won in this situation.”

Johnson said the teachers made sure to do lots of informational picketing so that people would know how bad their situation was. In a deep red state, she said political parties didn’t seem to matter. Cooks, secretaries, bus drivers, and instructional aides – everyone who worked at a school turned up, Johnson says, and she knows that some of them voted for Donald Trump.

“They obviously didn’t know who they were messing with,” Johnson said. “If you’ve ever hung out with elementary teachers, they’re not the most cutting edge crowd, but everyday working people organized and stood up for what we believed in. We didn’t want the public to think we were greedy or just griping, but you can’t take our money away and expect nothing to happen.”