CHARLESTON, W. Va. (CN) – The West Virginia statewide teacher strike continued into its eighth day Monday at the state capitol. The crowd of teachers, mostly women, wore red bandannas in commemoration of the Battle of Blair Mountain and grew to such a large size that they had to shut the capitol down temporarily.
The Capitol has a capacity of 3,700 people, but on Monday the crowd grew to a staggering 5,000. The line to get into the building this morning snaked more than half a mile down the sidewalk as strikers queued through the security check.
Last Thursday, Governor Jim Justice proposed House Bill 4145 which would grant the teachers a 5 percent pay raise. The House passed the bill with a vote of 98 to 1 but Senate President Mitch Carmichael sent the bill to the Senate Finance Committee to figure out a long-term revenue source for the Public Employee Insurance Agency before agreeing to vote on it.
Carmichael said he made the decision to send the bill to the finance meeting because he was skeptical of the revenue estimates given by Governor Justice, which are $58 million higher than those presented to the Legislature back in January.
Then on Saturday, the Senate approved a 4 percent pay raise which angered union leaders who promised it would make their strike indefinite. The House disagreed with the Senate and sent the bill to a conference committee.
In the Capitol Monday during the scheduled conference committee between three delegates and three senators, strikers gathered around two large television screens airing the conference. Most of the teachers gathered near the televisions expressed aggravation and impatience.
Ben Horsch, a seventh grade science teacher at Hamilton Middle School in Parkersburg, West Virginia said that things have been getting steadily worse for him during his thirteen years of teaching in the state, with co-pays for his medical insurance rising without a corresponding cost of living adjustment to his pay.
He said what he and many others are most concerned with, however is the lack of PEIA funding. “I would be fine with no raise at all if they promise to take care of the insurance,” he said.
Elizabeth Mariano, a fourth grade teacher at Edgewood Elementary School in Kanawha County, said she was annoyed after reading some of the legislative audits and several House bills which were killed this session, specifically House Bill 2172 which was intended to provide meals for low-income students to take home and any other students who might request them.
“I’m here to ask why is it that teachers are ‘greedy’ because we would like to have a living wage and we are ‘ignoring our students’ and ‘the kids are what’s important,’” Mariano said. “So why is it that when a bill comes along that attempts to provide for those students, it’s shut down and left to sit in the House Education Committee? It was introduced on January 10th of this year and it still hasn’t gone anywhere, so it’s a dead duck.”
“I thank God that I don’t have PEIA,” Mariano continued, “Because my husband has an incurable and incredibly rare disease. My fourteen month old has an Epipen for four of the most common allergens. I have an eleven year old that has a neurological disorder and I have a two year old that had fourteen ear infections last year, four battles with croup, flu, and RSV twice! If we had PEIA, one or two of us might have a tombstone that reads ‘sponsored by PEIA and your West Virginia Legislative Branch.’”
Mariano also questioned how the Administrative Liquor Fund, which is $8,000,000 a year can be funded, when the teacher raise and PEIA funding is somehow considered impossible.
Schools in all 55 counties have announced they will remain closed tomorrow due to the continuing work stoppage.