The West Virginia House of Delegates has passed a bill making it clear that strikes by public employees are illegal. Despite a Republican-led supermajority in the House and Democrats standing alone to oppose the legislation, the measure thinly passed the lower chamber Tuesday.
Senate Bill 11 seeks to codify a 1990 decision by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals that declared strikes and work stoppages by public employees illegal. The legislation also follows teachers and service personnel walking off the job in 2018 and 2019.
The measure would make going on strike a cause for termination, although that decision would be left in the hands of county administrators. Pay for days missed due to a strike could also be withheld, although that pay could be reinstated when days were made up.
After quickly making its way through the Senate, the House decided to skip the committee process and immediately consider the measure on the floor. As amended last week on the House floor, Senate Bill 11 now allows for extracurricular activities to occur on days when a strike takes place.
On Tuesday, House Education Chair Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, briefly explained the bill on the floor. Democrats then stood to oppose the bill and offered a string of arguments against the measure.
Del. Ed Evans, D-McDowell — a retired teacher — said the measure was unnecessary and would do nothing to curb public employees from walking off the job if they were forced to fight for better pay, benefits or working conditions.
“We already have it in law already. It’s against the law to do it. But they did it anyway,” Evans said. “And they’ll do it again — regardless if we pass this bill — if it’s bad enough.”
Evans said Senate Bill 11 was a “threat” against teachers and that the Republican-led Legislature was “doubling down” on the walkouts led by school employees in recent years.
“I’ve walked those [picket] lines and I’ll walk them again. I’ll be right there with them when it gets bad enough and they have to do it. Let’s quit threatening our teachers,” Evans said.
Del. Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, also argued against the proposal and said it was retaliatory for recent strikes.
Thompson, who also works full time as a public educator and was first elected to office following the strike in 2018, said teachers ensured that students were cared for while school workers weren’t on the job.
“The previous two work stoppages that we had, the teachers and the service personnel in this state made sure that every kid was fed — we got food ready, we delivered food,” Thompson said. “We had stations where kids could come and be supervised in community centers. Within those two work stoppages, we still made sure we had 180 days of instruction and 200 days of employment.”
Democrats also made mention of West Virginia’s long history with the labor movement. Del. Shawn Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, noted that union activist Mother Jones spoke on the Capitol steps in August 1912 following strikes by coal miners.
“Mother Jones spoke to us about unfair wages and conditions that they were going through in the mines,” Hornbuckle said. “This is deeper than teachers. Don’t forget where you came from.”
Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, also touched on labor issues in his floor speech against the bill. He pointed out that during the strikes of 2018 and 2019, many teachers wore red as a nod to the Battle of Blair Mountain.
“Because it was clear educators and school service personnel weren’t here for just [themselves]. They were here for our history,” Fluharty said. “They were here for every coal miner that came before them — every blue collar worker that came before them. Because this state was built on the foundation from the labor crisis.”
Ellington later closed debate on the bill and argued that the bill focuses on all public employees and not simply educators.
“It just says they will not get paid. It still states that it’s a condition that they could be fired. But it also says that we’re not going to use those extra instructional days to make up time for a strike. That’s all it does. It’s not targeting one group or another,” Ellington said.
In the end, Senate Bill 11 passed the House on a narrow 53-46 margin, with 23 Republicans breaking from the majority to oppose the measure.
With the bill changing form since being passed by the Senate, the proposal now heads back across the Capitol to the upper chamber.