West Virginia teachers are on a strike involving over 20,000 teachers and 13,000 school staff. It is the eighth day and I am inspired by the activism following the Parkland massacre. West Virginia teachers are not only exhibiting courage and willingness to stand up for the justice and dignity of the teaching profession, but they are demonstrating to the Parkland youth that adults, especially teachers do have a political consciousness and are no strangers to speaking out and using platforms such as social media to organize.
Like many states across the country, teacher salaries are pathetically low. In West Virginia starting salary is about $33,000 a year. Teachers in West Virginia are also vulnerable to a problematic and unstable PEIA (Public Employee Insurance Agency) health benefit plan with premiums that were scheduled to increase.
What does it take for teachers to go on a wildfire strike? There is real fear, repression and job insecurity in the teaching profession. For many, the financial crisis of 2008 never ended. Families are carrying enormous debt. Many lost property and savings. Sending children to college is prohibitive for teachers and many working class families. There are debt implications worse now with federal parent loan rates at 6-7%. Teachers who speak up about labor rights for themselves or against injustices inflicted on the children in their care are often derided and marginalized. The fact is, few teachers can afford to get involved in political battles these days.
To make matters more complicated, teachers are often caught in the middle of political ideologies attached to class and race. West Virginia, for example, is a high poverty state where a large number of students and families depend on schools for free lunch making a teachers’ strike a strain on an already impoverished community. A teacher’s salary in some neighborhoods, even at $33,000 a year, may appear to be a luxury. Another example is New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the country. New York’s record on school segregation by race and poverty is dismal (Orfield, 2014). The teacher starting salary is $45,000 a year and the teaching population is majority white while the student population in overwhelmingly black, Latino and Asian. When teachers protest or go on strike, many questions are raised— such as which president did they vote for? Where do they live and what are their views on unions or public schools? What is their definition of social justice and do they harbor confused or mixed feelings about what it takes to reach an equitable contract or agreement that will benefit both teachers and communities of color where they teach?
In spite of the social unrest, uncertainty and necessary self-examination that arises during a wildcat strike, it makes me proud to watch healthy civic engagement. In many respects, adults benefit from the brashness of Parkland youth and young Black Lives Matter activists, however it is important to remind them of the shoulders upon which they stand.