Defying Union Leadership, West Virginia Teachers Return to the Picket Lines

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Striking teacher Jay O’Neal says the rank and file rejected a deal struck between union leaders and governor Jim Justice because it lacked concrete action on skyrocketing healthcare costs

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JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. And contrary to what has been widely reported over the past few days, teachers in West Virginia, nearly all of them are on strike again today despite a reported deal between the head of the teachers union and the governor of West Virginia.

JIM JUSTICE: Nobody loves education more than me. Nobody loves our teachers more than me. And to be perfectly honest, in a lot of ways, I was looking at this maybe not correctly. So the long and the short of it is, now we have concluded with at least as far as an agreement as we can possibly conclude, that our teachers will go back to work on Thursday. We’re gonna give all state personnel, all state personnel right now or all state employees a 3% raise. We’re gonna do an additional 2% for all those that are related to education, whether it be service personnel or teachers, and we’re gonna do it all in the first year.

JAISAL NOOR: Now joining me to discuss this is a striking teacher. Jay O’Neal is a teacher at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Charleston, West Virginia. Jay, we know that you’re about to go to the capital to rally and lobby with some fellow teachers, but talk about why you’re on strike today, because it was widely reported over the past few days that there was a deal struck that would give you a 5% raise and then a promise to deal with the rising healthcare costs. Why weren’t teachers happy with that deal that was struck between the leadership of the union and the governor?

JAY O’NEAL: Well I think the biggest reason is, to be honest, because of past action we don’t trust our legislature or our governor. So we want to see real concrete proof that they’re doing this. Some legislation did come out yesterday for the 5% raise, but we want to know that it’s actually signed and passed before we go back. And they have set up what they’re calling a taskforce for the insurance, and I think a lot of us, I’ll be honest, are willing to give them a good faith effort on that and see where that goes. But again we need to see concrete proof that these things are happening, and we just felt like yesterday there wasn’t enough yet and we didn’t feel like it warranted us going back.

JAISAL NOOR: So what was your reaction when the union leadership was on the … to have your press conference, announced that the strike was over, a deal had been reached? How did you react to that?

JAY O’NEAL: I think a lot of us were just a little frustrated that they didn’t talk to us first. It was hard to get that announcement coming from the press conference and even actually coming from the governor himself, before we heard it. So I think we were a little blindsided. It’s not that we didn’t like a lot of the things in that, it’s more the delivery and the way it came to us.

JAISAL NOOR: What we have reported previously and what I asked Dale Lee, the head of the West Virginia Education Association, one of the main teachers unions, I asked him where did the inspiration for this strike come from? And he acknowledged that it came from the ground up, it came from the grassroots. That really pushed the strike forward. And so it’d be surprising to some, maybe disappointing, that the rank and file weren’t consulted for this deal.

JAY O’NEAL: Yeah I think that’s the thing is it really came from the ground up. This has definitely been a bottom-up movement the whole time. And I think we felt like we initially voted to walk out and to take this move, and I think we kind of wanted to feel like we were voting to come back now and check that at least the majority of us were satisfied with what happened.

JAISAL NOOR: And so another aspect of this we reported is that the state’s attorney general claimed that this strike is illegal and it seems like that’s true, this strike is illegal. Talk about that, that teachers are putting a lot on the line here by defying the state and now defying their union leadership by going on the picket lines.

JAY O’NEAL: So it’s true, we don’t have a collective bargaining in West Virginia, and so a lot of the teachers and school service personnel, bus drivers, cooks, everyone. First of all they’re not even all union members. We have about three different kinds of … Really they’d be more like associations here for teachers and service personnel. So because of that, yeah it’s illegal to walk out, but I think we just are getting to the point we thought we don’t have a lot of other options. We’ve tried for years to talk to our legislature, to lobby them, write them, call them, all these things. Nothing seems to be working. And we’re at the point now where we have over 700 unfilled vacancies in schools, and so it’s just getting frustrating seeing teachers leave to go to other states because it can pay five or ten thousand dollars more just to hop the state border and go next door. And teachers are realizing, what do we have to lose? We don’t have anything else so we’ve got to try something drastic, and I think that’s how we got to this point.

JAISAL NOOR: And finally, how long do you think it’s gonna take to win these concessions over healthcare, over pay? And I understand there’s attempts to decertify the training, the profession, or allow for non-certified teachers to help fill that gap, the need of teachers.

JAY O’NEAL: Yeah there’s been a lot of talk about that, even months ago of trying to kind of lower the certification requirements to get more people in the classrooms. Really they just need a big support issue of pay and our eroding health benefits. I hope this doesn’t last much longer, I do feel like there’s been some really positive movements in the last few days. For instance, the pay raise bill passed the House yesterday, we just need it to pass the Senate soon. So hopefully not too much longer but I think all of us are prepared to stay out as long as it takes to get things done.

JAISAL NOOR: All right, Jay O’Neal thank you so much for joining us, teacher at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Charleston, West Virginia. We’ll be checking in with you over the next few days and we’ll keep tabs on how this is going. Thanks so much.

JAY O’NEAL: Great, thank you.

JAISAL NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.