The 2018 Legislative Session saw mass public participation at the Legislature like never before. Thousands of teachers and service personnel swarmed the Capitol each day for nearly two weeks, overwhelming Capitol security and packing into nearly every available space.
In the end, public employees won victories in the form of an across-the-board pay raise and the appointment of a task force to determine the best pathway forward for PEIA (WV Public Employees Insurance Agency). After weeks on the picket line, teachers and service personnel returned to their usual posts. Everything was supposed to go back to normal.
Instead, teachers, school service personnel, students, and parents are returning to a new normal—one where they are more inherently aware of the power they have to influence legislation and of the ways they can keep watch over the legislative process.
While public employees await the first meetings of the newly-appointed PEIA Task Force, there’s much to be done to move the work started by the strikes forward. Citizens will need to remain vigilant to overcome the design of the task force, which encourages spectatorship rather than mass participation.
In addition to the high cost of PEIA and low pay, striking teachers and service personnel brought a number of other issues to light, many of which could be addressed by channeling some of this new energy toward them.
For instance, the massive efforts to secure food for students from food-insecure households serve as a very public reminder of the large amount of food insecurity that still exists in the state. “Shared Table” legislation passed this session accomplishes part of this project by making it legal for schools to distribute extra food to students in need, but people on the ground will be needed to do the physical work of ensuring the food gets into students’ hands.
The success of the Shared Table bill came as a result of an organized “bubbling up” process for soliciting community ideas. After presenting to a large caucus of community leaders organized by the “Our Children, Our Future” campaign, Shared Table team members won a spot on the campaign’s annual platform. In conjunction with campaign staff, this team was able to successfully advocate for the passage of the legislation in one year.
Organizations like Our Children, Our Future and the West Virginia Community Development Hub, along with the American Friends Service Committee, are working diligently to plan regional meetings to collect more ideas like Shared Table from everyday people to bring to the Legislature next year.
You can expect to see convenings popping up around the state—including in the Eastern Panhandle—over the next several months.
If there’s one thing teachers demonstrated this Legislative Session, it’s that the Capitol is the people’s house, and that the people have the power to change the course of decision-making when they come together to demand change. While public employees’ battle over PEIA is far from won, their first step clearly has the potential to spark a monumental shift toward increased inclusion of everyday people in the change-making process.