West Virginia public school employees will continue their statewide strike Monday, for a third consecutive school day, leaders of their three major unions announced Friday afternoon.
Up until the announcement — at a news conference that was packed with around 80 people about 10 minutes ahead of its 4 p.m. scheduled start — several of the school employees who again flooded the state Capitol on Friday said they didn’t know if union leaders would call for the statewide work stoppage to continue.
Dale Lee, president of West Virginia’s branch of the National Education Association union, also had said earlier Friday that he didn’t know if the work stoppage would continue Monday.
“It is clear that education employees are not satisfied with the inaction of legislative leaders or the governor, to date,” Lee said at the news conference Friday. “Our members have spoken and are not prepared to go back to work yet.”
“All 55 counties will be out on Monday,” Lee said.
He said progress will be evaluated then. He did not rule out the strike continuing.
Gov. Jim Justice, who has been rarely seen amid the school employee rallies at the Capitol on the work stoppage days, spoke to reporters Friday.
He promised and got the Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board to freeze health premiums, and other aspects of the benefits as they currently exist, through the middle of 2019. That prevents employees from enduring previously proposed cost increases. He also recently signed into law a bill that gives teachers an extra 2 percent in pay next school year, and an additional 1 percent in each of the following two years.
“When’s enough enough?” Justice said. “Our teachers need to be in the classroom. The Legislature has spoken, and I’ve signed it into law. Our teachers need to be in the classroom, and our kids need to be in school, and our families don’t need to be having to stay home from work in order to be able to take care of their terrible disruption.”
Justice said, “we should protect our teachers first and foremost, don’t get me wrong, and we know they’re underpaid, versus other states, we know all that, but again, from a businessman’s perspective, doing more than what we’ve done right now would be absolutely ridiculous to do. Doing more than what has already been proposed at this time, based on the numbers that I have, would be ridiculous to do.”
About 5,170 people entered the Statehouse through the two public access points Thursday, the first day of the strike, and about 4,520 had entered it Friday, according to the last updates from the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. For comparison, department Communications Director Lawrence Messina said the weekday average going back to Jan. 5 has been about 1,380.
Around noon Friday, more than 400 people were in front of the Capitol on the south side, facing the Kanawha River.
The Thursday and Friday work stoppages were announced at a rally last Saturday, and all 55 county school systems responded by announcing that their schools would be closed by the time Thursday and Friday rolled around.
With shorter notice this time, it was unclear late Friday how counties would respond. Lee said he hopes superintendents will handle Monday similarly, and, “based on what I’ve seen the last two days, I’m not expecting a problem from any county.”
When asked if Kanawha County public schools will be open Monday, Kanawha schools Communications Director Briana Warner wrote in a 5:40 p.m. email that Superintendent Ron Duerring “is still gathering information and reviewing options, and there is not yet a decision.”
Christine Campbell, president of the Wests Virginia arm of the American Federation of Teachers union, had said Thursday that, for this week’s work stoppages, “school was closed, prior to, by the superintendents. If the superintendents decide to keep school open, then that is a different situation, because then they are facing issues with employment and paychecks.”
She said the superintendent-ordered closure days will have to be made up, but “it gets into a different question if they decide to leave school open.” She said, “right now, there’s been no harm to the employees’ contract because they have to make those days up.”
State Schools Deputy Superintendent Clayton Burch had told House Education Committee members something similar this week.
“I believe that, once the decision has been made for that school to close, it would be like dealing with a snow day or any other cancellation,” Burch told the panel.
Campbell said she felt superintendents’ cancellations for Thursday and Friday provided more legal cover for the work stoppages, which state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has called “illegal” and state schools Superintendent Steve Paine has called “not lawful.”
A West Virginia Supreme Court decision in 1990 didn’t go into possible consequences for teachers who strike. Bus drivers, cooks and other school service personnel were not part of the 1990 strike, as they are in this one.
However, the court upheld a Jefferson County court’s preliminary injunction to end a union’s teacher strike there.
“Public employees have no right to strike in the absence of express legislation or, at the very least, appropriate statutory provisions for collective bargaining, mediation, and arbitration,” the court ruled back then.
On Friday morning, Lee said the unions would wait to see what action the government might take.
“Later today, we’ll evaluate everything. We’ll see what Attorney General Morrisey is going to do,” Lee said. “And we’ll come up with a strategy on what we’re going to do after today.”
He said he was hoping to have discussions with House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.
At about 11:30 a.m., when asked what would happen Monday, Campbell said, “We’re not going to do anything until the end of the day.”
Joe White, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, suggested before the Thursday and Friday work stoppages that leadership of his union isn’t really calling the shots.
“These are the members these are the employees who are doing this, and right now we’re just along for the ride,” White said.
This reporter happened to run across Morrisey twice Friday. Outside his office around 9:30 a.m., he was speaking to some people in the red and blue colors of the protesting school employees, and when he finished talking to them, he said only that “I’ll have more info as it develops” as he closed his office door on this reporter, who was trying to ask him what legal remedies he may pursue.
Around the Capitol cafeteria, Morrisey did tell the Gazette-Mail “we had a discussion with a number of the union leaders and just talked about the various legal and policy issues involved in this matter, and keeping lines of communications open is a good thing, and that’s all I have to say right now.”
At the news conference, Lee said Morrisey didn’t say in the meeting whether he would take action if the strike continued Monday.
Lee was asked at the news conference what it will take to get school employees back to work — certain bills employees and their unions oppose are clear, but the level of pay raise unions are willing to settle for has been particularly vague.
“Well, we need to start the discussions again with the House leadership and the governor,” he said. “We need to go back to the table and start to work on solutions that can be satisfactory to the educators across the state.”
Lee did say this week that, “I don’t think 5 percent [pay increase] for the first year is unreasonable.”
He and Republican legislative leaders all say they support putting together a task force to look at “long-term funding” for PEIA. But Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said he and union leaders haven’t spoken in recent days.