Pay raises, affordable healthcare: Teachers strike across the country

West Virginia teachers, wildcat strikers, on the move

When teachers in West Virginia closed every school in the state for nine days to strike for better wages and better healthcare plans, other educators, and the public around the country, took notice. One of the key issues of the West Virginia teachers was the Public Employee Insurance Agency, or PEIA, and the increasing payments from employees’ paychecks alongside the lack of quality take-home pay for teachers. West Virginian teachers rank 48th in the country in terms of pay, and any raise agreed upon between the West Virginia Education Association and the state would not have been enough to cover the rising PEIA costs.

Instead of caving to the governments’ demands, and suggestions to return to work from the union leaders, West Virginia teachers continued striking two days longer than the union had wanted; when a tentative “agreement” for a five percent raise for teachers and three percent raise for public sector workers was announced by union leaders, the teachers balked, rejecting the agreement and voting to continue the strike, shouting, “We are the union bosses!” and “Back to the table!” The fear would be that the raises would not do anything to fix the more pressing concern of rising healthcare costs, which, teachers argued, would only have short term impact. Chants echoed at the state capitol while the Senate was in session, “Pass that bill or we walk out!” “Hey, hey, whaddya say, fund PEIA!” In the end, instead of a watered down 3-4% raise, the Senate passed a 5% raise and will consider long term action for fixing the state’s public employee healthcare system.

News of the success in the teachers’ strike seems to be emboldening educators in other states. Oklahoma teachers, the lowest paid in the country, are considering a strike, the first major strike since 1990, to demand higher pay from the State Legislature. Teachers in the state are so underpaid that there has been an educator crisis, forcing the state the allow for three day weekends to entice teachers to work in Oklahoma.

On February 26, graduate student workers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign launched a strike to protect tuition waivers, which the university is planning to roll back by allowing academic departments to exclude students in their program from being members of the Graduate Student Union (GEO) bargaining unit. The strike also aims to making graduate education accessible for all students, demanding comprehensive childcare, healthcare and financial provisions to keep access to graduate level education open to poor and working-class people. The “Education for All” proposal was announced on day four of the strike.

In New Jersey, Jersey City educators have voted to strike, demanding relief from the rising cost of insurance. The union and teachers are demanding a reform of a Christie Era law, signed in 2011, called Chapter 78. The law required teachers to begin paying for their healthcare costs by percentages that increased over a four-year phase-in. Now that the four years are over, the district is permitted to allow teachers to pay a lower contribution than Chapter 78 requires, something the school board does not want to give in on. Any raises from the contract would not cover the cost of the healthcare payments, as one special education teacher pointed out, “I’m making less than I was five years ago.” As of today, the teachers are still working without a contract.

The rising tide of labor, like waking a slumbering giant, is a welcome relief form the ongoing attack on unions across the country, especially during the Trump administration. This time, instead of relying on union bosses, teachers relied on a collective, on each other, and on public support. And they’re winning.

University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign graduate students, strikers, on the move

 

(Photo Credit 1: In These Times / West Virginia Education Association / Facebook) (Photo Credit 2: In These Times / GEO / Facebook)

If rape isn’t in the guard’s job description, the jail is off the hook

A woman prisoner in West Virginia says she was raped 17 times by a Regional Jail Authority “correctional officer”. She sued both the officer and the Regional Jail Authority. She sued the jail for negligence in hiring, supervising, training and retaining said officer. The jail asked to be dropped from the suit because sexual assault is not in the scope of his duties. Rape is not in his job description, and so …

A lower court agreed with the woman. Last week, the West Virginia Supreme Court voted 4 – 1 in favor of the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority. The woman is called AB, the officer DH. The Supreme Court majority ruled: “We find that D. H.’s alleged acts fall manifestly outside the scope of his authority and duties as a correctional officer. There can be no question that these acts, as alleged, are in no way an `ordinary and natural incident’ of the duties with which he was charged by the WVRJCFA. Respondent has failed to adduce any evidence bringing these alleged acts within the ambit of his employment beyond merely suggesting that his job gave him the opportunity to commit them. As such, we conclude that the WVRJCFA is entitled to immunity for respondent’s claims based on vicarious liability for D. H.’s acts.”

There you have it. Rape is not in the job description, and so the Jail is “entitled to immunity.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Robin Davis offered the dissenting opinion: “In order to find that the Regional Jail is immune from liability when female inmates are raped with impunity by correctional officials, the majority opinion recast our law on qualified immunity in such a manner as to make it now virtually impossible for any state agency, not just the Regional Jail, to ever be held accountable for tortious conduct committed by employees within the scope of their employment. I do not make this accusation lightly… To add insult to injury, the majority opinion also has concluded specifically that liability cannot be imposed on the Regional Jail merely because it did not have any regulations designed to protect female inmates from being raped. According to the majority opinion, such regulations `easily fall within the category of ‘discretionary’ governmental functions.’ The majority opinion requires a rape victim to specifically point to `a ‘clearly established’ right or law with respect to . . . supervision[.]’ In the final analysis, under the majority opinion, the Regional Jail simply has to bury its head in the sand and never promulgate any regulation designed to protect the bodily integrity of female inmates to ensure its continued impunity from liability… The majority opinion promotes and rewards `gross negligence and deliberate indifference’ to the constitutional right of female inmates to be free of sexual assaults. But, the State cannot be granted absolute immunity merely because no regulation was violated when its employee raped an inmate seventeen times. Just what will it take to protect women from such assaults? Simply put, the Regional Jail was grossly negligent in not having regulations in place that would have protected the plaintiff from being alone with any male correctional officer on seventeen separate occasions.”

Just what will it take to protect women from such assaults? As reports from the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women reveal, this is not an isolated incidence. What if judges considered the `immunity’ of correctional staff before sending women to prison and jail for the slightest perceived offense? What if judges stopped targeting girls for prison and stopped punishing girls for non-status offenses? What if we turn this darkness into light? Just what will it take?

 

(Photo Credit: MediaMatters.org)

West Virginia Women: “Our Hair Can Grow Back. The Mountains Can’t.”

“Our hair can grow back,” environmental activist Vivian Stockman told me yesterday. “The mountains can’t.”

Last week, Stockman joined twenty other West Virginia women (and a few men) in silently shaving their heads at the West Virginia state capital. This week, seven more joined them at a protest in DC.  To Stockman, they are acts of mourning – “deeply personal” sacrificial actions symbolic of the pain that mountain top removal has brought to Appalachian communities.

West Virginians are no strangers to sacrifice.  Author Denise Giardinia wrote after the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster that West Virginia, my home state, has long been a “national sacrifice area.”  The health, safety, and environmental risks to mining communities have often been overshadowed by the fact that the rest of the country relies on the coal that comes from the region.

So now, women from West Virginia are making visible that sense of sacrifice – with their bodies.

The idea belonged to Marilyn Mullens who said that it came to her in a night of restless sleep.  Mullens explained that she wanted to lead a tribute to the hundreds of mountains and thousands of communities that have been damaged or destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining. “We’ve gone through all the official channels of every level of our state government,” she said.  “We’ve been to DC.  Nothing is being done.”

Mullens pointed out that we live in a culture in which hair is deeply important to many people, especially women.  By removing hers, she is standing in solidarity both with the mountains that have been blown up and with the people in mining communities who have lost their health.  Mullens, who is from Southern West Virginia, knows the human effects of mountaintop removal coal mining firsthand. Her community has been flooded multiple times (mountaintop removal can lead to increased erosion), and the foundation of her home has been badly damaged.

There is an Appalachian saying that what you do to the land, you do to the people.  And it’s true – just ask people living near mountaintop mining who face cancer rates of almost 15% (compared to the 9.4% for other parts of Appalachia).

Or ask the parents of the five-year-old girl whose photo recently caused such a stir in a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources. The photo, submitted by award-winning environmental activist Marie Gunnoe, depicts a child in a bathtub full of brown tap water. Gunnoe was clearly trying to show the health impacts on communities near West Virginia mountaintop removal sites.  It is a photo that everyone in the country should see.

But the photo was not allowed to be shown at the hearing, and afterwards Gunnoe was pulled into a side room and questioned by the U.S. Capitol Police for nearly an hour on suspicion of child pornography.

As Aaron Bady wrote in the Huffington Post, the real obscenity is not the photo of a child bathing – it’s that the communities have no choice but to bathe their children in polluted water.

Denise Giardinia was right when she wrote that West Virginia is a national sacrifice area.  But women in West Virginia are coming together to hold up photos, shave off their hair, and make people look at what kind of sacrifice is happening.  What you do to the land, you do to the people – but the people can organize.

For information on how to get involved, check out the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

 

(Photo Credit: Between the Lines) (Image Credit: Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition)