— Thoughts on the 2018 teacher work stoppage from a local educator.
I began noticing discontent weeks before the nine-day teacher work stoppage. Many wondered how and why our state health insurance, PEIA, was proposing so many predatory changes. In a state where salary increases have failed to keep up with inflation and benefits have been cut due to lack of funding, the last thing teachers and state employees needed was a pay cut due to rising premiums.
What truly lit the powder keg were two highly unpopular and invasive PEIA proposals. First, there was GO360, an app that required state employees to keep track of their daily fitness. If we would fail to log enough points on GO360, deductibles and premiums would go up. Second, PEIA proposed a “Total Family Income” clause which mandated that we send them our tax information so they could prorate our premiums based on spousal income, children’s income, and supplemental income—such as side jobs, rental income, dividends, etc. As tensions increased by mid-February, union leaders came to our schools and conducted a vote to organize a state-wide work stoppage beginning on February 22.
The work stoppage took my colleagues and I to a variety of places. First, we picketed at locations like downtown Charles Town, Shepherdstown, and Panera Bread (Ranson), where we received an amazing amount of local support from community members and local businesses.
Additionally, many drove to Spring Mills High School, where we saw Governor Justice questioned by a hostile crowd as he attempted to justify and alleviate the situation. Following the governor’s Q&A segment, many of us were interviewed by news stations and made brief appearances on the evening news. Some of us even ventured deep in-state to the Capitol, where other state teachers and employees packed the interior hallways and front steps of the famously golden-domed capitol building.
While in the capitol, we watched the governor’s bill, which would have ended the work stoppage, be repeatedly tabled by our Senate, although it had already passed through the House 98-1. Eventually, the bill passed, giving all state employees a five percent raise, a 16-month freeze of PEIA premiums, and the removal of GO360 and the “Total Family Income” requirement.
And so we returned to work. The work stoppage shed light on several government issues that some would consider a misuse of tax dollars, and possibly unethical contributions. Newspapers printed mindboggling expenditures by government officials in Charleston, like $32,000 couches and $28,000 floor rugs—which cost more than a state service person’s average salary.
Additionally, Senator Richard Ojeda became a social media icon with live videos describing the Senate’s refusal to consider bills that would raise the severance tax on natural gas—allegedly because of campaign contributions.
And a video even surfaced on many news websites of a democratic primary candidate being dragged out of the capitol building for reading state representatives’ political donations from oil and gas companies. The whole state, if not the whole country, seemed to be watching.
Ultimately, the nine-day work stoppage may have taken us to variety of physical locations, but has left us with a higher cognizance of local and state government. Hopefully, voting will increase, and voters will research individual candidates. I know I will remember this in November.