West Virginia Teachers Made Lunch For Kids While They Were On Strike

It's a telling moment that preceded a big win for teachers.

West Virginia teachers took the time to make children's lunches despite being on strike for nine days.

More than 20,000 West Virginia teachers and 13,000 school workers went on strike Thursday, Feb. 22, fighting for higher wages and better health benefits. But before they did, teachers and community members across the state rallied to pack brown bag lunches and deliver food during the strike, ensuring needy students still got the meals many rely on from their schools. 

USA Today reported on several different food programs that continued throughout West Virginia in advance of and during the strike. In McDowell County, the "Blessings in a Backpack" program that sends kids home with food on the weekend packed extra backpacks of food before the strike. In Marion County, teachers worked along with local volunteers and church members to deliver food to needy families while school was closed. In Jackson County, a "Snack Pack" program that feeds kids on the weekend was beefed up on the Wednesday before the strike began to feed children for almost an entire week. 

More than 250,000 students in 55 counties were left out of school during the strike, which lasted almost two weeks. West Virginia teachers are the third lowest paid teachers in the United States, according to CNN. The average salary of a high school teacher in West Virginia is $45,240, about 35 percent lower than the $61,420 national average. 

The strike initially lasted for five days until union representatives and Gov. James C. Justice announced they had come to an agreement. Gov. Justice announced a deal to raise the teachers and school workers' salaries by five percent while proposing the creation of a task force to address the rising costs of healthcare.  

"We need our kids back in school, and we need our teachers back in school," Gov. Justice said at a press conference during the announcement.

But there was skepticism from the start. While Gov. Justice praised the deal and said he was hopeful state lawmakers enacted it, plenty of politicians were unsure they had the money to do it. Gov. Justice said the state was revising revenue estimates upward, which would open up room to pay for the increases in salary.

"The governor says there's more money. We want to see it," Mitch Carmichael, the president of the state senate, told The New York Times. "I'm skeptical the money is real."

As the deal moved its way through the state legislature, teachers became unsure that the word they were given would turn into actual law. Even with the increase in salary, the rising costs of health insurance needed to be addressed before some teachers would be happy. The base salary cited above does not include deductions for health insurance, social security or teacher's retirement accounts.

"Most people are not completely satisfied," Erica Newsome, an English teacher from Madison, West Virginia, told The New York Times after the initial deal was struck. "We are underpaid and we do need a raise, but if we aren't going to fix the insurance, it's just the same story as before."

And so the strike continued until the governor signed a five percent salary increase for teachers and school workers into law, along with forming a task force to address the rising cost of health insurance. In all, students missed nine days of school. 

"You have a story here, a modern-day story, of labor solidarity on an issue that is irrefutable," Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, told CNN. "That for teachers to stay in our profession, for bus drivers and support staff to stay and do this work, we need a livable wage, and we need the conditions in schools that we can help kids thrive."

The strike comes at a time when resources for schools are part of several national conversations. In January, a Baltimore, Maryland native was forced to start a GoFundMe to try and raise money for heating inside a city school. The situation caused an outcry for more education funding in low-income areas. When arming teachers was proposed as a new way to address school shootings, several teachers pointed out they'd prefer to have money allocated for basic things like pencils and books rather than armed security. 

As education activists have long noted, America — on average — spends less than $10,000 to educate a child, but between $35,000 and $64,000 to incarcerate one. Increasingly, school funding across the country is inequal. Some states, like Connecticut, have taken that issue to court, trying to force lawmakers into more evenly distributing school funds. Part of that is the result of research done by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which concluded that a 20 percent increase in spending per student can lead to an additional year of completed education and 25 percent higher earnings as an adult.

Now, the ramifications of the West Virginia teacher strike are beginning to come into clearer view across the country. Teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky, also some of the lowest-paid in the country, are considering a similar strike to improve their pay and benefits. 

"You're not negotiating with a particular, a unique set of participants," Carmichael told The New York Times. "There's just this organic sort of — I don't know what to call it. More like an uprising."

Cover photo: Chicago teacher strike, 2012. Shutterstock / Atomazul

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