“Will the last teacher to leave West Virginia please turn out the lights?”
Nearly 30 years ago, one of my teachers held that very handwritten sign. She, along with my mother and dozens of other educators from my high school were picketing in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia as part of a statewide teachers strike. The sign became iconic, running on the front page of newspapers across the state and the nation.
In 1990, those teachers were striking because of poor teacher benefits and worse pay. West Virginia was paying its public school educators less than 48 other states. The situation became so bad that unions in all 55 counties in the state organized a work stoppage. After two weeks, a true-blue legislature and a Democratic governor finally saw things the way those teachers wanted them to. Benefits were improved, and West Virginia committed to raising teacher salaries to the middle of the pack when it came to state averages.
Fast forward to 2018, and we are seeing the same scenario play out in a state that has largely become a microcosm for America. The state is gripped by opioids. The jobs of the old, industrial economy are drying up. West Virginia’s legislature is now shockingly red. The state is now led by a Republican governor (though one who was just elected as a Democrat in 2016). But again, West Virginia’s teachers are almost the lowest paid in the nation.
Currently, the minimum salary for a public school teacher in West Virginia is $26,000. To put more simply, if one accounts just for student days – overlooking required teacher work days, evenings, weekends, summers, and all of the other times teachers actually work – the minimum teacher salary is about $14 an hour. Or about what teachers in the Northern Panhandle would make in Pittsburgh or those in the Eastern Panhandle would make in the DC suburbs if they gave up teaching and became baristas at Starbuck’s.
During the 1990 strike, I was all too aware that teachers in my high school needed to hold second jobs in order to make ends meet. It was a frequent sight to see a teacher working as a bartender or waiter at a local restaurant or as a desk clerk at one of the nearby motels. During the strike, it would have been very easy for these teachers to turn to their second jobs, pick up additional hours, and ensure that they would make the rent or car payments that week. But they didn’t. Each and every day, they were out there on the picket lines. They were marching for their profession. And they were ensuring the entire community saw them.
That year, those teachers won because they had public support. Yes, the closure of schools is always an inconvenience for families in the community. But each day, parents and children brought the teachers water and soda and food. Neighbors honked their car horns in support. And even when the handful of teachers who refused to strike told students their records would be noted and student activities would be pulled if we failed to cross the picket line, not one student went into the schools during those weeks.
Fast forward to 2018, and we see a different story. The state legislature is now advancing a package for teachers that would boost teacher pay by about 4 percent over the next several years, far from the jump their fellow educators saw three decades ago. Public support for union strikes, even in strong union states like West Virginia, is not nearly as strong as it once was. And with the Supreme Court now considering the Janus case, labor unions and their memberships are likely to be weakened even more.
It’s quite sad that, at a time when we all recognize that a strong education is key to success in the digital, information economy, we still have to fight to ensure that educators are paid like the high-stakes professionals that they are. It is sadder that we, as a nation, are now talking about bonuses to teachers who come into the classroom armed, but still can’t pay many of them a living wage. And it is even sadder when teachers need to technically break the law and engage in a statewide work stoppage to gain the respect and recognition that they well deserve.
As a child, I romanticized my grandfather and his Teamsters jacket. I imagined he received it as a reward for backing Jimmy Hoffa and his agenda to play rough with short-haul trucking companies. To me, the Teamsters were a true union’s union.
Then I watched my mom and many of my high school teachers walk the picket lines, putting their livelihoods on the line. I saw them walking for what they believed in. And I saw the community stand behind them. I saw that light. So did many others.
Today is school day number four of the 2018 West Virginia teachers strike, and the request asked 28 years ago may still be pertinent. WV Gov. Jim Justice and the legislature will see that light too, and show teachers across the state the respect they deserve. Otherwise, they may indeed be turning off the lights for West Virginia’s students.