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School Personnel Hold Pickets

By Staff | Feb 16, 2018

Wetzel County Schools’ personnel stand in front of New Martinsville’s old Rite Aid building, holding an informational picket on Feb. 16. Personnel are speaking out for competitive wages and reasonable insurance benefits.

Despite heavy rains and flooding, Wetzel County Schools personnel braved the elements and held informational pickets on Feb. 16, outside of the county’s schools.

School for Feb. 16 had been closed on the morning of Feb. 15, due to an impending work stoppage. Superintendent Ed Toman had confirmed the details on Feb. 15, stating he had been notified of the stoppage by Sandi Hurst. Hurst, who represents Wetzel County’s West Virginia School Service personnel Association, had informed Toman that the association was walking out on Friday, Feb. 16.

Toman said there would not be enough drivers, cooks, aids, and secretaries available at the schools on Feb. 16. Therefore, the schools closed.

Teachers and service personnel, among other state employees, are concerned about competitive wages and being able to afford health insurance benefits

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said Feb. 15 that the state’s public school teachers are “exploring their options,” as they are await word from union leaders as to when to walk off their jobs.

Wetzel County Schools’ personnel stand in front of Short Line School, holding an informational picket on Feb. 16. Personnel are speaking out for competitive wages and reasonable insurance benefits. (Photos by Bruce Crawford)

Teachers, meanwhile, plan to rally from 1-2 p.m. Saturday outside the State Capitol to grab the attention of state lawmakers in Charleston.

Unions expect as many as 5,000 teachers from across the state to participate. The teachers aren’t satisfied with a 2 percent pay raise for them passed this week by the Legislature that would also give them a 1 percent raise each of the next three years.

They also aren’t happy with a call by Gov. Jim Justice to the Public Employees Insurance Agency board to freeze health care premiums 17 months as the state seeks a permanent solution to growing costs.

Teachers also maintain they are being “disrespected” through proposed legislation that could eliminate teacher seniority consideration in the schools, as well as other measures that would allow union members to opt out of paying union dues if this money is being used for political purposes, according to Lee.

He said “no” when asked if a teacher walkout is eminent.

“We will explore all our options, and we will continue negotiating with the Legislature,” he said. “As things progress or regress, we will decide our next course of action – which could be a statewide action.

“We are really trying to insure every child in West Virginia has a great education. You can’t do that when you have 727 positions without a teacher. You can’t do that with low pay and eroding benefits. And you can’t do that with low morale and bills that strip seniority,” Lee said.

Lee described the mood of teachers as “angry, very angry,” and he was asked whether they are ready to strike.

“My feeling is, yes,” Lee said.

Prior court rulings have determined that public employees in West Virginia cannot legally strike. Lee was asked what the difference was between a strike and a walk-out.

“It’s what the court decides,” he answered.

Lee believes the teachers would have the support of the public if they did go on strike.

Though the Feb. 16 closure was due to an impending service personnel work stoppage, Wetzel County teachers and personnel have been holding informational pickets throughout the past couple of weeks, at each of the county’s schools. Elliot Kendle, of the Wetzel County Education Association, has noted that the informational pickets and walk-ins that are taking place throughout Wetzel County are demonstrations “of our solidarity with and support of teachers, education service personnel, and other public employees throughout West Virginia. These protests are a response to the actions of the Governor and the Legislature. We are united in our struggle to fix PEIA, obtain a competitive salary, and stop the attacks on employee rights.”

Joselyn King contributed to this article.