by Ron Gregory
CHARLESTON – As a statewide teacher strike appeared inevitable Wednesday afternoon, the war of words continued to fly at the statehouse.
Republican legislators and their new state chair, Melody Potter, were praising what they called “significant” pay raises for teachers over the next five years. Meanwhile, many Democrats and teacher union leaders were not buying the GOP spin on the story. In fact, Democrat Chair Belinda Biafore accused Republicans of lying to the public about the issues.
“After (Governor) Jim Justice campaigned on making education the centerpiece of West Virginia, it’s now clear that he flat-out lied to West Virginia educators. The governor drank the Kool-Aid of Senate President Mitch Carmichael and is now directly attacking teachers.”
Biafore continued, “The only thing consistent about Governor Justice is his pattern of lies. Justice lied to educators to get their support during the election, he lied about paying the millions in back taxes he owes the state, and he lied about putting his businesses in a blind trust.
Potter proclaimed that Republican legislators are committed to “allocating tens of millions of dollars to our hard-working educators. Republicans are offering tangible solutions, in a fiscally responsible manner, to give our teachers the higher salaries that they deserve.”
While nobody appears to dispute the need for state worker raises, the argument is over the amount that can be afforded. Republicans, including Governor Jim Justice, argue that while an economic turnaround is underway, more experience is needed to be sure the increased revenues continue. Democrats have offered several alternatives to fund larger raises than the two percent planned for next year, with one percent in the following two fiscal years.
Carmichael and other Republican leaders are also criticizing union calls for a statewide education walkout Thursday and Friday, saying such action would be “illegal.” It has been nearly 30 years since teachers last walked off the jobs.
“Unfortunately, union representatives and liberal interest groups don’t want West Virginians to know the truth,” Potter said. “They want to threaten our government by shutting down our schools and leaving our kids and their parents out in the cold. Democrats are desperate for a wedge issue to run their platform on in 2018. They are willing to use our children and their education as nothing more than a political stunt.”
The GOP chair went on to accuse Democrats of being “pro-abortion, anti-gun and now anti-education.”
The senate passed the two percent pay raise this year and one percent in the next two years on a 27-6 vote. Six Democrats joined in voting for the plan which Republicans declared was a take-it-or-leave-it offer for teachers. The house of delegates had earlier passed a five percent increase plan. But Tuesday evening, the majority was siding with senate leaders and voted 59-37 to pass the two-one-one percent bill.
Justice urged teachers to accept the plan but union spokespersons said they would not.
Both Christine Campbell of the American Federation of Teachers and Dale Lee of the West Virginia Education Association said members would not accept the proposal. They even called it “moving in the wrong direction,” pointing out that the house-approved five percent had been reduced to just four over three years. Justice had initially proposed one percent per year for the next five years.
Meanwhile, Carmichael said “union bosses” are orchestrating the planned walkout. “You’re locking the doors to our schools because the union leadership didn’t get what they wanted,” he told a reporter.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Trump, a Republican, said on the floor that any job action by the teachers and other personnel “is illegal. Strikes by public employees are illegal.” He urged teachers to “stay in your classrooms and do your jobs.”
Earlier Tuesday, the Public Employees Insurance Agency board approved a 2018-19 benefit plan that keeps employee premiums and benefits at current levels. Service personnel and other state employees would benefit from the premium freeze as well as the salary increases, Justice said.
Union leaders such as Lee insisted teachers are only asking for what is fair. He said his members want a position at the table where pay issues can be discussed. Rather than consider cancelling the planned work stoppage, Lee and Campbell were both reluctant to say the protest would end there. Lee said a “place at the table” might assure that the strike does not extend even longer.
Carmichael said he would not rule out possible legal action against the strikers.