Strikes are common in West Virginia. Living here makes you quickly learn you may have to take a stand for fair or equal treatment. When all 55 counties in West Virginia went on strike, I was not surprised but like many people across the nation, I was fascinated and wanted answers about this grassroots social movement. When I met Robin Cutlip, I knew I had found the perfect person with whom to discuss the #55United West Virginia Teacher’s Strike of 2018-2019. Workers throughout the country were inspired by this movement. Cutlip had been a part of the grassroots social movement, and although she never thought of herself as “political” she surprisingly found herself ready to run in 2020 as a Democrat to represent the 44th District in the West Virginia House of Delegates.
Cutlip, a special education teacher, was eager to begin sharing her tale when we spoke on the phone on October 23, 2019.
I asked Cutlip what caused the strike to begin: “This was about PEIA [West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency]; we walked out over the insurance. People thought it was because of the small pay raise we never asked for but it wasn’t. PEIA’s deductibles were about to double for some families. PEIA is used by state and retired state employees, that are about 200,000 people and each year PEIA would raise premiums.” Cutlip elaborated on the impact this had on teachers: “We found these increases insulting. Then, they decided to slap us in the face once again with this ‘Go 365’ program. It was simple – if you’re overweight, your premiums increase. If you wore a FitBit, they would give you Amazon gift cards. We had a deadline to invest in a FitBit and an iPhone X, but who can afford that? If we missed the deadline, we would be fined by the state for being unable to comply. If you didn’t buy into this, your premiums would increase. This was so belittling and is one reason that STEM instructors are difficult to keep in our state. At one time, teachers were someone the state respected. They were leaders in the community but it’s not like that anymore. The profession is not as proudly looked upon as it once was.” Cutlip continued: “We were sick of it”.
Thus, the West Virginia Teacher’s Strike began evolving into something more than anyone could have fathomed. The first organizations to support the strike were the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association (WVSSPA).
Cutlip elaborated: “All state employees worked together to gain & share information because we knew something had to change. Union leaders started sending out info about PEIA prior to November because they knew change was coming. Around November 2017, we heard rumors of a strike. Then we saw Senator Ojeda giving a passionate floor speech on Wednesday, January 17, 2018, bluntly stating that if something wasn’t done, these people were going to walk out. We wanted to let the community know this could happen – garbage men, police officers, and social workers were all sick of PEIA. We had a lot of community support because people were shocked by this or knew about it from their own experience”.
Cutlip pieced together the stages and organization of the strike: “In each of the counties, we would gather at popular spots along roads and do “honk & waves” to passing traffic. We would give out flyers in the community and at basketball games. We began, “Red for Ed,” which was wearing red shirts in solidarity each Thursday. We began having county meetings in November and continued getting updates until February. That’s when the union stepped in and we began discussing our options. I wasn’t all in at first but after we had 2 walkouts I knew it was more serious. Senator Ojeda gave yet another blistering floor speech about the teachers walking out on February 1, 2018. On February 2, 2018 Mingo, Wyoming, McDowell, and Logan County Schools had a one day walkout. On February 16, Cabell, Wayne, Lincoln, Mason, and Brooke County Schools went on work stoppage. The weather was bad, so some may have had snow days, but everyone was still out of the classroom.”
I recall the weather being absolutely dreadful that Saturday, February 17 when teachers from nearly all 55 counties in West Virginia went to Charleston. Cutlip did not attend this event, but thousands of teachers made the trip to Charleston, ready to discuss PEIA.
Cutlip continued: “The labor unions had county meetings and we anonymously voted on whether we would go on strike if one was called. We voted to go and when the Union got the response, they called the Strike/State Wide Work Stoppage on Thursday. We were willing to stay, have a picket line, and not let people cross it. The people on the front lines would do whatever it took to keep those schools closed. The Superintendents agreed to keeping schools closed for safety’s sake. I thought this would just be for a day or so, but I still made the journey to the Capitol. Before I went the first time, a friend told me that I would feel emotional & empowered. She reminded me of our goal of helping the county come out of this. I was not sure how this would make me feel empowered but when we saw thousands of teachers there, I felt an overwhelming feeling of pride to be there for the same reason as everyone else. February 22nd was the official day we became 55 UNITED.”
Yet, amidst all of the bad weather, the Strike, and the organized chaos associated with grassroots social movements, the teachers planned ahead so their students would not suffer. They knew free lunch was the only way many kids got fed. A portion of the teachers would always be at the Capitol, but there were also groups that would be making bag lunches to take to the kids. Teachers drove door to door in many counties to take lunches to hungry students.
I asked Cutlip which members of our State Senate and House of Delegates helped teachers the most with negotiations during the strike. She told me that Senator Richard Ojeda was the one who became the voice of the teachers in 2018 and further explained: “I knew who my Representative was but that’s it. Half of us would go to the side in session and the other half would stay on the other side and we would stomp and chant. When the Representatives would come in, we didn’t know which Representative went with which county. We were looking them up in a Roster. But 12 senators began wearing red, yellow, and blue ribbons so we would know who they were and that they were with us.” As the strike progressed, I learned that the colors of the ribbons were red for teachers, yellow for school service employees, and blue for all other state employees.
“We would cheer, thank them and shake their hands. If they were brave enough to face us, we were going to thank them because we knew they were on our side. It was the Republicans that used the side doors, not facing the mob of teachers. But the most supportive Representatives were Senator Ojeda, Woelfel, Romano, Jeffries, Beach, Plymale, Unger, Precioso, Facemire, Baldwin, Stollings, and Palumbo. They were the ones who came & hung out with us, specifically Senator Ojeda, Woelfel, and Unger. One time, Romano and Ojeda did a live video from the capitol stream and talked to everyone so people stayed informed. But Senator Ojeda is the one who stood out and continued being the voice for the teachers.”
Cutlip described the stress & frustration of the battle: “We’d been there four or five days in a row and it felt like forever to me. People stayed at the schools to strike, but I needed to be at the Capitol to make a difference. After the fifth day, I couldn’t take any more. We were having these insane 8AM-11PM schedules for a few days. And you were scared to go get lunch because you were worried they would go back in session if you left. The day I was feeling the lowest and was ready to go home, Senator Ojeda opened up the doors and said to us, ‘We can hear you in there but what we want to hear is that you are worthy. Say it – we are worthy!’ I think him doing that is what really made it sink in for so many people. At that moment we realized that if it wasn’t for the custodians, the children wouldn’t have clean classrooms in which to learn. If it wasn’t for the bus driver, these children wouldn’t have someone to drive them to and from school. If it wasn’t for the teacher, the child wouldn’t have a person in their life, encouraging them to be something in this world. If it wasn’t for the cooks the children would be hungry. If it wasn’t for the secretary the school would be in chaos. At that moment we realized that we were worthy.”
The truth is – on that fifth day the legislature realized they were not only seeing teachers unions, they saw the UMWA standing beside the teamsters, pipe fitters, painters, and broiler makers. They saw every union across WV standing in solidarity with teachers. When they saw this they knew they were against more than the teacher’s union and that they were facing a huge fight.
After teachers won the strike everyone was on a high and everybody was ready for a Blue Wave because people had promised to “Remember in November”. The Republicans knew they were in trouble, so Governor Justice came out in early October with a show stopper. He stood on stage with the same Republicans who had attacked the teachers. These Republicans thought they were politically finished, but when Governor Justice asked the public to promise to re-elect the Republicans, so he could reward the public employees with another 5% pay raise because he suddenly realized how important they were.
It worked. The public re-elected the same Republicans who stood against the teachers in the last session. During the beginning of 2019, it was revealed that instead of a clean 5% pay raise, Justice and the Republicans were going to make teachers & school service personnel pay for insubordination & standing up for themselves the year prior by adding charter schools, which will take money away from public schools and have a huge impact on public education as well as public employees.
Cutlip was clear to point out: “This time it wasn’t about more money or PEIA, it was about our students and charter schools. After the strike, we received around a whole $40 extra on a paycheck and PEIA was still out in limbo. We call the Omnibus bill the Retaliation Bill because they wanted charter schools. If it was lumped together they thought we would overlook the charter schools. We (teachers) didn’t want charter schools, the Republicans wanted them because of the money they would make.”
Cutlip continued: “They had this bright idea to open an Education Savings Account so parents would get $1,000 if they took their kids out of public school and put that money toward private schooling or online classes. You would never be able to monitor this spending. We KNEW this was just another way to take funding from our public schools. would happen if we brought in charter schools because public schools. If they keep taking from us, we will be teaching by candlelight.” Cutlip added matter-of-factly. “We didn’t want this bill at all. This second strike was only two days & the bill died but we knew it would not be over that easy.
Cutlip proceeded with the timeline of the fate of the teachers: “In May, Carmichael called a one-day education session with the intention of throwing together a huge bill over the summer so we wouldn’t show up but we were ready to go at it again.”
“It began on June 17, 2019. They were going back and forth in the Senate and Carmichael tried to do three readings without a vote but we were there to shut that down. It came back on June 18, and it was Omnibus Bill 2.5. Carmichael wrote this bill for the House of Delegates and told them how to vote. Once again, we filled the halls full of teachers on the morning of June 19th. They postponed their agenda and we learned the education bill wasn’t being discussed until 6pm. Supportive Delegates in the House tried their best but Democrats got shut down because this bill wasn’t for teachers. When the House took up the Omnibus Bill, they stacked the committees so that the Democrats didn’t have a chance; thus, the teachers wouldn’t win. This was proudly done by Hanshaw & Carmichael. It finally got voted on at 11:30pm, and it passed. We knew it was a done deal because the backroom deal had already been made. We need to take House Bill 206 and tear it up. We can keep some of the good things from the Omnibus bill and allow teachers to be teachers again.”
Cutlip firmly told me, “I am not just trying to be a delegate for the 44th. I am trying to be a delegate for the state.” And her passion for the state of West Virginia truly matched her sentiment. She shared her inspiration for running: “Senator Ojeda is the reason why I decided to run for office. I saw how much of an impact he had made and I wanted to do that, too. This state doesn’t have a shortage of teachers; it has an Exodus of them for more money in other states. Specifically teachers who taught STEM courses. If they would pay us what we are worth, we would stay. The voters need to be educated and vote for candidates that will fight for them, their county, and our state or we will continue to lose teachers to other states and other occupations.”
Cutlip shared some of her feelings about the direction of her district: “The 44th district had a good delegate; his name was Dana Lynch and he was a Vietnam veteran who had served several terms in the house. His opponent, Caleb Hanna, was a fresh faced 19 year old who came out to the picket lines, supported, and talked to the teachers about keeping young people in the state. He did this until he beat Dana Lynch in 2018. Now, the 44th district has a Representative that does not represent them. During the strike, Caleb stood side by side with the teachers and made them believe he would be their voice but in reality, the moment after he won his seat he voted against teachers & school personnel at every chance. He has made no effort to speak to the ACLU or any women’s groups. Yes, this is the young man who infamously requested the state of WV, one of the poorest states in the union, take 10 million dollars from its rainy day fund to apply toward President Trump’s border wall. Obviously, this was an asinine idea made on a whim to desperately seek attention from his new peers, who were much different than his old ‘friends’. Essentially, Mr. Hanna made no effort to assist teachers in West Virginia.”
With a final bit of hopefulness, Cutlip shared, “If anything good came from the strike, educators are involved and we’re still standing united.”
I couldn’t agree more and I am very proud to live in a state where we still fight for the injustices we encounter. Another bit of hope is that teachers and school service personnel will always be in the Capitol to keep an eye on the Legislature to make sure teachers know what is happening. Hopefully, the 44th district will soon have Robin Cutlip to represent the interests of the community. In West Virginia, we may not win every battle, but no battle is overlooked or unappreciated.
And no battle goes down without a fight. It’s not that we welcome conflict, but we certainly do not mind to resolve it.
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