More struggle ahead as W.Va. education workers face setback

After two years of intense struggle against right-wing state officials, West Virginia education workers faced a temporary setback June 19.

The state Senate held a special legislative session June 3, during which they passed SB 1039 — the mislabeled “Student Success Act.” The bill was introduced in retaliation for triumphant education worker strikes during the last two legislative sessions. 

The “Student Success Act” is similar to the Omnibus bill — which was defeated in February as a result of the second walkout — that tied a much-needed pay raise to for-profit charter schools, the elimination of seniority rights and increased class size. The Senate also introduced language to punish participants in future work stoppages. 

The Senate introduced another anti-union bill, SB 1040, which would have allowed use of public money for vouchers known as Education Savings Accounts. Both pieces of legislation were designed to bust unions and privatize public education. Fortunately, SB 1040 eventually died in the House. 

W.Va. House attacks educators

The House of Delegates convened June 17 to vote on the two anti-education bills introduced by the Senate. They were met with thousands of red-clad education workers and supporters, including students and parents. 

Education workers and supporters filled the galleries, while others held a rally outside. Leaders of the West Virginia Education Association, American Federation of Teachers-WV and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association gave speeches, along with United Mineworkers President Cecil Roberts. A handful of multinational and multigendered high school students spoke in solidarity with their teachers and service personnel.

Also in attendance — on the opposite side of the class struggle — were paid lobbyists for the Koch-brother funded “Americans for Prosperity,” the Libertarian-influenced “Institute for Justice,” and also bigoted evangelical representatives of the so-called home-school movement. The right-wing lobbyists received “boos” from the crowd and were visibly uncomfortable. 

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, a corporate attorney for Big Oil by trade, threatened his fellow Republicans with being “stripped of committee responsibilities” if they voted against SB 1039. Hanshaw made this blatant threat because a few House Republicans had voted to suspend the Omnibus bill indefinitely back in February, providing just enough votes to defeat the reactionary legislation and settle the walkout.

Soon after it met, the House made some changes to the bill. It removed an amendment that would have penalized participants of future walkouts with the threat of termination and reduced the authorization of 10 charter schools to three, to start in the 2021-22 school year. There were also small modifications to the language about seniority. SB 1039 became HB 206.

According to education employees who spoke with Workers World, these changes are in no way acceptable because “strikes are already illegal in West Virginia,” and it still permits the opening of charter schools. 

On the morning of June 19, a public forum was held in which people were limited to one minute to speak. Eighty percent of those who spoke were opposed to the bill. The Republican leadership rudely interrupted several people who spoke out against the bill, including one person who attempted to raise awareness of the day being Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the U.S. Meanwhile, the leadership thanked and complimented those who were supportive of the reactionary bill.

That evening, the House passed HB 206 by 50 to 47 votes, despite the fact that education workers filled the galleries late into the evening, while other people stood chanting outside the House floor. At one point, notoriously anti-LGBTQ delegate Eric Porterfield — who made national headlines for his vile comments in February — complained to the House Speaker that he was “offended” by the loud chants outside the chambers. The school voucher bill, SB 1040, did not move that day.

Billionaire coal-baron Gov. Jim Justice — who falsely “promised” he would veto any bill featuring charter schools during the Senate’s session in early June — publicly announced he would sign the bill with the House changes if it passed the Senate. Justice coincidentally “changed his mind” after a Tweet from bigot-in-chief Donald Trump and several conference calls with people from Trump’s cabinet, including Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 

Some Senate Republicans are upset with the changes because they don’t feel the House version of the bill is retaliatory enough.

Shady money and far-right roots

Two of the groups most invested in busting unions and privatizing public programs are the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heritage Foundation. These organizations are behind the legislation against public education throughout the U.S. today.

Both ALEC and Heritage were cofounded by Paul Weyrich, an arch-segregationist credited with garnering the evangelical votes for U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Weyrich had close ties with the racist regimes of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and apartheid South Africa, and was known as a close collaborator of the Hungarian Nazi named Laszlo Pasztor.

Weyrich, who died in 2008, was inspired to create the Heritage Foundation after witnessing what became known as the “Kanawha County Textbook War” in West Virginia. In 1974, the English Language Arts Textbook Committee of Kanawha County recommended 325 books for the school curriculum, including titles by Angela Davis and George Jackson. 

Kanawha County School Board member Alice Moore instigated a right-wing mobilization when she called on evangelicals to burn books and boycott schools until the reading list was removed. The terrorist Ku Klux Klan got involved and planted dynamite in one of the elementary schools, on two school buses and in several homes of students who defied the bigoted “boycott.” 

According to retired teacher and labor activist Mark Swiger, who has done extensive research on the struggle, “Paul Weyrich physically attended some of the anti-textbook rallies in Kanawha County.” In addition to attacking the progressive-leaning Textbook Committee, the evangelical bigots also targeted the National Education Association and its state affiliate.

Another organization responsible for busting public sector unions and privatizing education is Americans for Prosperity, led by Charles and David Koch. Their father, Fred, worked closely with Weyrich in the anti-Semitic and anti-Communist John Birch Society.

What’s next?

The nine-day school worker walkout of 2018 inspired education and public employees worldwide and set off a strike wave that reverberated across the country. 

On June 20, people who spoke with Workers World felt sad and disgruntled. The reactionary ruling class got their way, at least for now. The Senate is expected to reconvene June 24 to vote on the bill and probably vote on the House changes. 

It is not likely that people who were willing to break the law by defying anti-strike laws two years in a row will back down now. There are rumors of a possible work action in the coming months, but nothing is definite. Ultimate power will always remain in the hands of the rank and file.

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