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A Year Later, West Virginia Educators Reflect On Strike And What's Changed


There have been so many teacher strikes over the last year, it's easy to forget how unlikely it was for the first to have been in West Virginia. The last time there was a major teacher strike there was back in 1990. And the state Supreme Court said it was illegal for them to walk off the job.


So the fact that last year thousands of them did, that they did so for more than a week and that it kicked off a wave of labor actions from Kentucky to California is a big deal. I went to Martinsburg, W.Va., to talk to some teachers to find out what this has been like for them and why they ended up striking again a year later.

LEE CHEEK: One, two, three.


CORNISH: We'll start with Lee Cheek, band director at Spring Mills High School. He's the kind of teacher kids love joking around with. So when we tell the class why we're visiting, the premise of our story, right away a trumpet player in the back jokes, so what has it been like?

CHEEK: What's it like? Well, Tim, some days it's more of a challenge than others.

All right, very nice. Thank you, everybody.

CORNISH: After class, I sit down with Lee and two other teachers to talk more about that.

JESSICA SALFIA: My name is Jessica Salfia.

CORNISH: She teaches creative writing.

KARLA HILLIARD: I'm Karla Hilliard.

CORNISH: She teaches honors English. We take our seats in a small, gray-walled conference room typically used for testing. And I start by asking about their politics. Were they activists before? Well, not really. Lee Cheek calls himself a centrist. Karla Hilliard says she comes from a family of West Virginia Democrats. And Jessica Salfia says she's the black-sheep Democrat in a family of Republicans. They're union members, but last year's strike was not a top-down affair. Karla Hilliard says for her, it started online.

HILLIARD: I was added to a Facebook group. And then that Facebook group grew. And then the conversations on that Facebook group became more and more specific in terms of what the issues were that people were becoming more and more unhappy and discontent with.

CORNISH: Back then, West Virginia teachers were upset because they were getting a 1 percent pay raise while their state health insurance premiums were going up. Basically, they said it felt like they were taking a pay cut, and they were already among the lowest paid teachers in the country. The grumbling on these Facebook groups and within the unions themselves started getting louder.

Was anybody nervous when talk started to go towards walkout?

HILLIARD: This is Karla. It was surreal, but it was also empowering and scary. And it was loaded with emotion, walking out of your classroom not knowing when you were going to return.

CHEEK: They called a rally. We were all going to get together and do, like, a drone photo op. But when we were meeting up on the corner, someone said, I think the strike just started. And I really got a shiver out of that because up to that point, we had been protected by those above us. And when it turned into a wildcat strike, that to me was the most frightening part.

CORNISH: Wildcat because when the governor offered the unions a deal with a 2 percent pay raise, the teachers went against union leadership. They refused to go back to their classrooms. But the teachers said they felt supported.

CHEEK: There were people who were inconvenienced. What do you mean I got to get my mother-in-law to watch the kids again? But they're still blowing horns and waving at us and expressing their support. It was like, we know you have to do this.

CORNISH: But you hadn't seen teacher strikes for some-odd 30 years, certainly not a wave and certainly not in red states. So clearly there was something about the last two years.

HILLIARD: I think we were also operating in the context of things like #MeToo, of Black Lives Matter. Right before we went on strike, two weeks before, the shooting in Parkland, Fla., happened. These wonderful kids were banding together and demanding change and action. And so I do think there was this landscape that we were a part of when we also chose to organize and protest...

SALFIA: No, I feel like...

HILLIARD: ...If you guys would agree with that.

CORNISH: It's interesting. You're all nodding right now.

SALFIA: Yeah, in America right now there is a sense that we are all finished putting up with oppression and being taken advantage of and kids not getting what they need in schools and students not being protected. And that school shooting aspect played a huge role in this as well, that of all the things we're being asked to do as an educator in the scope of a day, the emotional labor, the mental labor it takes to be a teacher in 2019, we also might get shot. And that is the everyday reality of the American educator - every day. I can tell you...

CORNISH: This is not a thing that would have occurred to me coming down to talk about my teachers' strike report.

HILLIARD: I think it speaks to what we're asked to do. And I did know what I was signing up for, and I did understand the demands of the job and the pay. But our job is changing. What's asked of us is changing.

SALFIA: I think the whole country said, we've had enough.

CORNISH: Some nine days after walking off the job, West Virginia teachers had won a 5 percent pay raise and a pledge from the governor to freeze out-of-pocket health care costs under the state insurance program. In the year after, the teachers here watch labor actions in Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado and, most recently, California.

And this is the part of the story where I expected to hear how their lives have changed, how their pay bump made a difference, how those health insurance costs improved, how their classrooms have been affected. That's not what happened.

CHEEK: Not to make light, I feel like we're in between rounds of a boxing match. The insurance issue has not been settled. So it's not a movie. We can't wrap it up and say, hey, the little guys won.

SALFIA: Of course we felt empowered and proud but also apprehensive about what was going to be coming because our legislation in our state government was, to a certain degree, some of them made to look like the villains, the bad guys in this fight. And I think all of us were preparing for 2019 and retaliation.

CORNISH: Which is why a year after their first strike, West Virginia teachers walked out of their classrooms again - for two days this time. It was over a bill that, yes, provided them pay raises and brought in more school funding. But it also included plans that they did not support, like spending for charter schools and a dock in pay for teachers who choose to strike. That last part, penalties for teachers who strike, could also become a legacy of the last year. In Oklahoma, two bills were introduced aimed at punishing teachers who strike. One would yank their certification.

In Arizona, there's a bill that would prevent schools from closing for strikes and threatened fines if they do. But Republicans in the West Virginia statehouse deny that provisions added to this year's education bill were retribution for the walkouts.

MITCHELL CARMICHAEL: The concept of this bill, the omnibus comprehensive education reform bill, as being retribution for any type of work action on behalf of the teachers, it is 100 percent false.

CORNISH: That's West Virginia Senate president Republican Mitch Carmichael. He sponsored the bill that teachers protested this year. It failed as a result. He's frustrated too.

CARMICHAEL: Teachers feel disrespected, but we respect and want to honor them, want to raise their level of pay. And I can't speak about it across America, but in West Virginia, we're certainly doing all we can, after years of neglect, to bring their level of pay up and make their workplaces more inviting.

CORNISH: So I guess the bigger question is, from your position, do you think that the actions by teachers fundamentally changed the conversation about education funding? Did it force statehouses to think differently?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, I think there's some influence, obviously, that they have. I think we hear the teachers. You know, you don't have to shut down our schools and keep our kids out of the schools in order for us to hear you. We hear you.

CORNISH: In the meantime, a year after their wildcat strike ended, West Virginia teachers are on the job, not sure what happens next but knowing their action was heard nationwide. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.