Three years to the day since teachers and school service personnel in West Virginia went on strike calling for better pay and benefits, the state Senate has passed a bill making it clear that walking off the job is illegal for public employees.
Senate Bill 11 would codify a 1990 decision from the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals that stated work stoppages and strikes by public employees are illegal. The legal opinion did little to curb teacher strikes in two recent consecutive years — first in 2018 and then again in 2019.
Members of the upper chamber voted 21-12 Monday to approve Senate Bill 11, with Sen. David Stover, R-Wyoming, joining Democrats in voting against the bill. Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur — who frequently sided with teachers and their unions in recent legislative sessions — was absent.
The legislation calls for pay to be withheld for missed days — although that pay could be reinstated if missed days are made up — and for extracurricular activities to be prohibited on days missed due to a strike.
Democrats who spoke to the bill on the floor argued that the bill is retaliation for the strikes in recent years.
Through a line of questioning directed at Senate Education Chair Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, noted that Senate Bill 11 was single-referenced and was not taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Lindsay also pointed out that legislation to increase teacher pay and improve benefits was not considered until teachers went on strike in 2018. He said it would create more harm than good — causing some teachers to leave the state and others to consider not working here.
“I understand that what this legislation seeks to do is codify what’s already in common law. But the timing of it is suspicious,” Lindsay said. “We’ve already heard testimony, even though this comes out of the education committee, that this bill does nothing to encourage teachers to stay or bring teachers to West Virginia.”
But Republicans, like Senate Finance Chair Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said the bill was about “the children” and keeping them in the classroom.
“When work stops in the schools of West Virginia, our kids are not in the classroom. Mr. President, that has been illegal for years,” Tarr said. “The Supreme Court ruled on that and said that we now have case law — they made case law — that says such work stoppages are illegal. So how did it proceed and we have no consequence for the past couple of work stoppages that have happened?”
Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, noted that when West Virginia teachers walked off the job, they made sure children were fed every day that school was out. He argued that the bill targeted educators for the strikes in 2018 and 2019.
“This bill does nothing to move West Virginia forward. It does nothing to further that profession. It’s mean-spirited — and I think it’s in retaliation for people standing up for what they believe in,” Caputo said.
In closing debate on Senate Bill 11, Rucker said the language of the bill only offered clear guidance to counties in how to deal with a strike.
“This bill simply clarifies work stoppages are illegal. This bill simply clarifies that it was not the legislature’s intent to facilitate illegal work stoppages,” Rucker said. “This actually frees up the county boards of education to know how to act in the future. This is not a retaliatory bill.”
The Senate’s passage of the measure drew swift criticism from the leaders of teacher unions, including West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee and American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia President Fred Albert. Both union leaders called the bill retaliatory.
“We’ve known since 1990 that it was illegal to strike in West Virginia,” Lee told West Virginia Public Broadcasting by phone. “But when you’re pushed to a point, you’re willing to take a stand and you’re willing to risk the consequences that are involved.”
In a separate phone call, Albert echoed Lee’s comments.
“It was illegal in 2018. It was illegal in 2019. It was illegal in 1990 for teachers and others to strike,” Albert said. “We should be providing jobs, we should be creating jobs in West Virginia and we should be supporting our public educators. I just don’t know what this bill really does.”
Senate Bill 11 now heads to the House of Delegates for consideration.