(CN) - Thousands of striking schoolteachers who have shut down West Virginia classrooms for days are demanding a face-to-face meeting with the governor and legislative leaders on their pay grievances, a union official said.
Until that happens, the teacher vow, the state's schools will continue to be closed for 277,000 students in all 55 of its counties.
The teachers, who rallied at the state capitol Monday and Tuesday are members of the American Federation of Teachers, the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.
They want Gov. Jim Justice and leaders from the state Senate and House to meet with them on their complaints.
On Monday United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts spoke to the large crowd of public school teachers and service personnel gathered outside the State Capital,
“This is not really a strike,” Roberts told the crowd of thousands. “This is a movement. This is when the good people of West Virginia take back their state ... I am willing to subjugate myself to you. If you need somebody to walk the picket lines, call me,” Roberts told the screaming crowd.
Later, lawmakers voted to close the day’s session until 11 a.m. Tuesday, despite the presence of protesters in the gallery and state Senator Richard Ojeda’s attempts to introduce Bill 486 that would have imposed a a 2.5 percent tax on natural gas revenues that would then provide a much-needed infusion of cash into the teacher's benefits fund. Ojeda said tax could generate as much as $70 million for the fund.
“That’s once the straw is in the cup,” Ojeda said. “Once that straw is in the cup, that $70 million would become $350 million like that,” he said, snapping his fingers for effect.
After the Senate closed for the day, Ojeda spoke with a group of teachers who had gathered outside the Senate chambers, telling them “the natural gas is underneath our feet! It’s ours and these guys are gonna’ sell it for nothing because they are in the pockets of these [oil and gas company] guys! So, what they did today, whether you want to talk about it or not, was deny the people’s right to see where their loyalties really lie.”
After promising to attempt to present his bill again tomorrow, Ojeda told the assembled teachers that he was at least trying to see the “ayes and nays” in order to determine what his colleagues were thinking.
“What is going on in West Virginia right now is a travesty. Look at the pipelines on the sides of the roads. Those people aren’t going anywhere. In some areas, they’re already in the ground! They’re not going anywhere! And if Ohio was so great, then take your ass back to Ohio, but they don’t want to go to Ohio because guess what? The gas is under us! And we’ve got a Governor right now who’s going around trying to get everybody to agree to co-tenancy and forced pooling… I have never in my life met such a self-serving individual.”
“These people, they know that the eyes are upon them and that they are going to go down in history. What will your legacy be? Will you be remembered as somebody who rolled over for big energy and big pharma or will you be somebody who stood up and fought for your people?”
Rena Good, a fifth grade teacher at Confidence Elementary in Putnam County said she appreciated the support shown by the UMWA and thinks that its time that the union movement was revived in West Virginia and across the United States.
“Lots of people here in West Virginia work hard and work two and sometimes three jobs and still fall below the poverty line. West Virginians are good people, we are hardworking people, we step up when our neighbors need us and we help when we can’t even afford to help,” Good said, speaking about the need for labor unions across all fields.
“We aren’t asking for extravagant things. We’re asking for the right to a decent salary, a right to healthcare, which are basic rights that every human being should have,” Good said.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey has issued an opinion declaring “the work stoppage is unlawful.”
“Let us make no mistake,” the opinion read, “the work stoppage is unlawful. State law and court rulings give specific parties avenues to remedy such illegal conduct, including the option to seek an injunction to end an unlawful strike.”
State Schools Superintendent Steven Paine said in a news release last Tuesday that “work stoppages by public employees are not lawful in West Virginia and will have a negative impact on student instruction and classroom time.”