Union Report: In West Virginia, 15,000 Teachers Are Planning a Walkout. The Strike Is Illegal — but It Shouldn’t Be
Mike Antonucci’s Union Report is published every Wednesday. You can access the complete archives by visiting the website.
In an unprecedented move, three unions representing public school employees in West Virginia have declared a two-day walkout this Thursday and Friday. The purpose of this protest is to highlight the issues of low pay and inadequate health insurance benefits.
What makes this move significant is the level of solidarity among the three unions. For years, AFT West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association have been engaged in intense competition for members and influence. This has continued long after their counterparts in other states reached a cease-fire agreement. Additionally, the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, which was once affiliated with AFT, has since disassociated itself in 2015.
The unions claim that an "overwhelming" majority of school employees across the state have authorized the walkout. However, they have not released specific numbers regarding the votes or turnout.
There are several complexities and challenges involved in this situation.
1. West Virginia is a right-to-work state. Consequently, less than half of the public school employees in the state are members of any of the three unions. The success or failure of the campaign depends on the support or indifference of nonmembers towards the unions’ cause.
2. The walkout is scheduled for two days, Thursday and Friday. While this sends a strong message to state lawmakers, it is unlikely to have a lasting impact on the school schedule or individuals’ finances. Positioning the protest on these specific days aims to maximize participation, but it is possible that some participants may view it as an opportunity for an extended weekend.
3. It is unlikely that participants will experience a loss of pay. However, determining the specifics of compensation can be complicated and potentially lead to legal disputes. If the schools remain closed, employees will expect to be paid, similar to how they would be compensated for a natural disaster or a snow day. Moreover, there are provisions for sick days and personal days, and it would not be easy for administrators to deny these to employees, especially if they provide a doctor’s note.
4. Public employee strikes are considered illegal in West Virginia. Union officials have been cautious in their language, preferring to describe the walkout as a "work stoppage." When asked about the legality of the job action, the president of the West Virginia Education Association pointed out the impracticality of firing 15,000 public school employees. This highlights the question of why a no-strike law exists in the first place.
A historical example of an illegal teacher strike and the response to it comes to mind. In 2001, teachers in Middletown, New Jersey, went on strike over an issue involving health insurance premiums. They and their union defied a court order to return to work. Judge Clarkson Fisher responded by holding teachers in contempt of court and placing 228 of them in jail. While some teachers accepted the ruling, others made excuses to avoid jail time. This incident demonstrates the complexity and consequences of illegal strikes.
In conclusion, the current situation in West Virginia raises important questions about the legality and justification of banning teacher strikes. While the state’s laws prohibit such strikes, the potential danger or harm caused by these protests is minimal compared to the response needed for strikes involving essential services like police or firefighters. The rationale for banning teacher strikes is questionable and lacks a solid foundation.
The teachers were set free, life continued more or less as it had before, and no one dared to repeat such foolishness, despite numerous unlawful strikes involving teachers in other states that followed.
Let the employees of West Virginia schools proceed with their walkout. However, if they were to attempt a more extensive protest in the future, a different calculation would come into play. Regardless of their legality, strikes by teachers always come down to the same question: who can endure for longer? Will it be the school district, facing pressure from parents to have their children back in the classrooms, or will it be the teachers, once they begin to miss their paychecks?
Regardless of which side gives in first, both parties will claim victory.