Bill would allow firing of striking West Virginia teachers

FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2018, photo, Jennyerin Steele Staats, a special education teacher from Jackson County holds her sign aloft outside of the capitol building after WVEA President Dale Lee outlined the terms for ending the walkout on the fourth day of statewide walkouts in Charleston.

CHARLESTON — Bills now working their way through the legislative process would impact public service employees, including teachers, who engage in a strike.

Senate Bill 11 includes language emphasizing and spelling out the illegality of public employees striking, and specifying the action could result in them being fired and at the very least losing pay for days missed.

Not only that, school superintendents would be prohibited from “closing a school in anticipation of or to facilitate a concerted work stoppage or strike,” SB11 says.

Use of accrued and equivalent instructional time to cancel days lost due to a concerted work stoppage or strike would also be prohibited.

Another stipulation is that no extracurricular activities would be held during a work stoppage.

A companion bill, House Bill 2536, is also working its way through the legislative process.

“It’s a retaliatory bill,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, referring to the 2018 statewide teacher strikes that led to pay raises. “It actually takes local control away from superintendents.”

Lee said it’s been known since 1990 (the year of a previous massive strike) that work stoppages were “illegal for educators, but when you feel strongly enough about something you are willing to endure the risk.”

During the 2018 work stoppage, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued a statement with a reminder that it was illegal and could be enforced, but no action was taken on any level.

The bill ties the hands of superintendents, Lee said, because they must keep schools open but they know the lack of enough staff on hand “becomes a safety issue with the kids.”

Lee said that during the 2018 strike teachers and service personnel had wide public support as well as support of superintendents, and the bills take aim at trying to erode that support.

“It’s an attempt to turn the superintendents and the public against it (a work stoppage),” he said.

After political moves involving a Republican-controlled Senate that initially opposed the pay hike and the intervention of Gov. Jim Justice, the 2018 nine-day strike ended with a 5-percent pay raise for all public employees and at least a plan to try to deal with the increasing cost of the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA).

Lee said since Republicans now have a supermajority (more than two-thirds, enough to override a veto), “they can pass anything they want.”

Justice has not yet weighed in on the bills.

State Sen. Chandler Swope (R-6th District) supports the Senate bill and is one of its co-sponsors.

“It codifies that it is illegal to strike,” he said of the bill’s language.

Swope said teachers or any public or private employee should not be paid for days they refuse to work.

“If you don’t work, why should you get paid?” he said.

Dr. Deborah Akers, superintendent of Mercer County Schools, would not comment on the legislation because she had not yet read the entirety of the bills.

The third reading of SB 11 is scheduled for Monday while HB 2536 is set for a second reading Monday. If both are passed, each would be sent to other legislative body to work on a final version that both the Senate and House can agree on.

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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