Will Jersey City teachers be next to strike?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — At Stonewall Jackson Middle School in West Virginia, students filed past a sign that read: “Welcome back, lets roll.”

Its been nine school days without class. Students returned Wednesday to Stonewall Jackson and other schools across West Virginia, a day after the states teachers wangled a 5 percent pay increase from their elected leaders. Their victory came after walking off the job in all 55 counties of this poor Appalachian mountain state to protest some of the lowest pay for their profession in the country.

After school, our district held a meeting on potential action. Emotions ran high. Teachers are torn between doing what needs to be done for the schools and kids, and in turn putting a major burden on the community in the process. How will those kids eat? What about parents who work all day? Our first instinct as teachers is to do anything to protect the kids. But its gotten to the point now, we can no longer keep filing it all away, compartmentalizing it, and hoping itll all work out in the end. Because every year, we do, and every year, our state legislature absolutely and totally fails all of us. And every year, we file it all away, compartmentalize it, and were told that somehow itll all work out.

Stonewall Jackson teacher Hannah Silverman said she was “pumped” to be back at work.

When we control for education, experience, gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship, marital status and weeks worked per year, the weekly wage earnings of full-time New Jersey public school teachers are significantly lower than those of comparable full-time employees…All metrics yield one unmistakable conclusion: New Jersey public school teachers are undercompensated–they face wage and compensation penalties for being teachers.

“I was like a kid on the first day of school last night, I literally couldnt sleep,” Silverman said. “So, I was really excited, this is my passion. I want to be here and Ive been excited since we found out yesterday.”

When I was a teacher in Jersey City a few years ago, we were working with an expired contract, and teacher morale was low, but I dont remember ever hearing the word “strike.” The fact that West Virginia teachers were able to close schools in all 55 counties of a rural state has put the idea of a Jersey City teachers strike back into the realm of possibility for the first time since 1998.

After the long layoff, Stonewall Jackson student Angel Davis said she tried to persuade her sister that getting back to school was a good thing.

LYING DIRECTLY across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Jersey City is often referred to as New Yorks “sixth borough.” It is one of the most densely populated and racially diverse cities in the country. Although many of the citys working class neighborhoods have gentrified rapidly over the past decade, public school students come from mostly low-income, minority families.

Despite losing the school days, the teachers had support from parents and students. Never mind the difficulties some parents had arranging for child care and finding activities for their idle children.

Republicans in New Jersey have never been secretive about their disdain for unions, but Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, the second most powerful Democrat in in a state with the third most millionaires per capita, has also opposed raising taxes on the rich. Coughlin claims the states top priority “should be to reduce spending” before attempting to raise new revenues.

Nannette Higginbotham had mixed feelings as she said goodbye to her daughter on her first day back at Andrew Jackson Middle School in Cross Lanes.

A teacher of 15 years explained how her entire career has been an uphill battle against the school board, the administration and the state. Every new contract, she said, has been a draining fight for the pay and benefits that teachers deserve–and the stress of constantly fighting these battles has taken its toll on teachers who have built careers in the district.

Man arrested for brandishing gun at striking worker

“I love having her home, but Im glad theyre getting back to school and getting it over with,” she said.

Throughout the strike, the World Socialist Web Site and the Socialist Equality Party called on teachers to form independent rank-and-file committees, to unite teachers with the entire working class. In West Virginia, the formation of such committees is necessary to prepare for the next stage in the fight against the attack on wages and health care. The formation of factory and workplace committees throughout the country and internationally will provide the framework for unifying the struggles of the entire working class in a political movement against the state apparatus, the Democratic and Republican Parties, and the capitalist system.

At the Village of Barboursville Elementary School, teachers traded holding picket signs for ones such as “I Missed You” to welcome students back. The teachers stood outside as their charges arrived Wednesday.

The last thing the unions wanted to see was an escalating working class movement, which would undermine everything they have done to suppress the class struggle since 1981, when the breaking of the PATCO air traffic controllers strike set in motion an unbroken string of betrayals. With the Janus vs. AFSCME case on the constitutionality of agency fees paid to public employee unions pending before the Supreme Court, the unions were eager to demonstrate their usefulness to the ruling elite, as expressed by a union lawyer in oral arguments last month: Union security is the tradeoff for no strikes.

How can Colorado solve shortages when some teachers make close to minimum wage?

“Im sure not only was it stressful for us as educators, (but for) parents and the students,” special education teacher Jamie Robinette told WSAZ-TV. “The students want to be here. We want to be here. Im so glad that its over.”

Teachers, however, rebelled. They organized meetings on the picket lines, in the capitol and online where they rejected arguments by union functionaries who tried to cow workers with threats that a continuing strike would alienate the parents and result in injunctions and punishing fines. In county after county, school workers voted to defy the strikebreaking orders by the WVEA, AFT-WV and the school service workers union, and continued their battle.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has asked county superintendents to be flexible as they decide how to meet the requirement of having 180 days of school, saying students “have suffered enough.” He wants families to have time for summer vacation and doesnt want summer feeding programs placed in jeopardy if classes go too far into June.

Some superintendents are mulling whether to cut short spring break, typically in late March, although families often have vacations already scheduled during that time.

The paralyzing walkout shut 277,000 students out of classrooms, forced their parents to scramble for child care and cast a national spotlight on government dysfunction in West Virginia. These 35,000 public school employees had gone four years without a salary increase.

The attitude of the giant corporations that control the state to the settlement of the strike was articulated by an editorial in the right-wing Charleston Daily Mail, which last week attacked teachers for refusing to follow the orders of the unions and return to work. Three cheers for Republicans in the Senate of West Virginia, the newspaper enthused, for not caving to the demands of an unruly crowd by passing higher taxes.

From outside the state, GoFundMe campaigns bought pizza for the striking teachers and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for their immediate needs such as lost pay and child care.

Embracing the hashtag “55strong” in a nod to the number of counties in the state, teachers and school service personnel gathered at the Capitol daily in the thousands, waiting in long lines in the cold and rain as they remained steadfast in their demandsd.

A former staffer of one of the two state teachers unions, Frankenberry said it was critical that through social media, the teachers – and nobody else – controlled the information they shared and acted on. Theres interest in whether what happened in West Virginia, from the outside considered overwhelmingly red, can work elsewhere, he said.

Their euphoria after winning the fight carried over with them into the schools on Wednesday.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has asked county superintendents to be flexible as they decide how to meet the requirement of having 180 days of school, saying students “have suffered enough.” He wants families to have time for summer vacation and doesnt want summer feeding programs placed in jeopardy if classes go too far into June.

At Robert C. Byrd High School in Clarksburg, teachers lined up to greet students heading to their lockers.

Kyle Lovern/Williamson Daily News Students returned to Williamson PreK-8 School Wednesday after the nine-day teacher strike. Various schools across the county welcomed their children back Wednesday morning with signs, singing and other special activities.

“We were giving them high fives and chanting You matter to us!” teacher Connie Buffey told The Exponent Telegram.

Associated Press writers Robert Ray in Charleston, West Virginia, and Michael Virtanen in Morgantown, West Virginia, contributed to this report.

Over 24,000 teachers and public employees in West Virginia joined a private Facebook group that became the headquarters, forum, and meme factory for the massive teachers strike in West Virginia.

Frontier claims annual wages for the companys union employees exceed $64,500, and more than half of all union employees earn more than $75,000 per year. For comprehensive family medical coverage, most employees pay less than $150 per month for family coverage, with no annual deductible and low co-pays. Including employee benefits, the companys average employee cost per CWA member is more than $100,000, the company said in a news release.

The West Virginia teachers strike ended after only nine days on Tuesday with a 5% raise for teachers across the state, and organizers say a private Facebook group was key to the swift and decisive victory.

Two West Virginia teachers started the West Virginia Public Employees United Facebook group in the fall, hoping it would be a place to share concerns about cost increases to their healthcare plans that would have resulted in overall pay cuts. Over the last few months, the group — which workers can only join by invitation — shot up from a few hundred members to over 24,000. The states school system employs 35,000 people total.

As the group grew, and tensions between public employees and the Republican-dominated West Virginia statehouse heightened, it became an organizational hub, meme factory, and the political engine that eventually led to tens of thousands of employees walking off the job.

Ed Mooney, vice president of Communications Workers of America (CWA) District 2-13, said the union has been very clear throughout the bargaining process that its top priority is keeping good jobs in its communities.

This strike wouldnt have happened without the grassroots organization through the private Facebook group, said Ryan Frankenberry, an organizer with the progressive West Virginia Working Families Party, which supported the teachers efforts. The legislative leadership, unions, other organizations, were all helpful. But without question, I dont think this would have reached the critical mass that was needed had they not had the platform of the group to communicate.

Frontier officials said Clark was a contractor and had not begun working when the incident occurred. Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski said Clark has since been terminated by the contractor.

Emily Comer is an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union member and a West Virginia teacher. When she noticed waning AFT interest and attendance, she, along with fellow teacher Jay ONeal, started the Facebook group to be a place where teachers, as well as school service personnel and other public employees, could communicate.

People have not been super active in unions in the last several years, she told BuzzFeed News. We thought this would be an easier way to get in touch with people, and keep people updated on what was going on.

‘The kids were so glad to be back. The teachers were so glad to be back,” she said. “We’re excited to be back in school. You miss the kids,” said Amanda Gillispie, a second-grade teacher at Jefferson. “You know that we’re missing a lot when we’re out, but the reason we were out was pretty important. I feel like it benefits everybody.”

Initially, the group was meant to share event info, like dates and times for public hearings held to discuss health benefits. Because the group wasnt affiliated with either of the two West Virginia teachers unions, or any one political party — Facebook group membership includes both liberals and Trump voters — it reached a wider swath of workers, and caused people to come out to the hearings in large numbers, Comer said.

Facebook contributed to a sense of everyone being in it together, said Comer.

Teacher and group member Erica Newsome described the group as being a pretty good mix.

“It’s great to have teachers and service personnel back,” said Wood County Schools Superintendent John Flint. “They love to be in school. It’s what they do and they are great at it. The parents are happy the schools are open, and I think even the students are eager to get back into a routine.”

West Virginia was a red state in the last election, but none of that has really come up, she said. We have a common enemy here, and its the people at our state capital who are looking out for corporations instead of us.

Firefighters battled the blaze for more than a week, prompting calls for people to shelter in place due to the thick black smoke and smell of burning plastics which covered the valley. The governor declared a state of emergency for Wood County and the state superintendent waived those days of instruction for the school system.

As membership swelled, Comer and ONeal sought out additional colleagues to be moderators. They evaluated each new addition, making sure they were actually public employees, not bystanders and imposters trying to join just to be divisive.

At first, the group was mostly a place to vent and share information. But as membership grew, and public employees got more and more frustrated, it increasingly became a place where teachers outlined strategies and distributed plans.

We would use Facebook to coordinate, said Newsome, whos a union member and joined the group when it was only about a thousand people. “We had our union reps at the capitol every day, and theyd get on [Facebook] and say whos saying what, whos proposing what, whats being considered. That information has been really key, and Facebook has been a really good source of that.”

Of course, the actual voting on whether or not to strike took place in person. But Newsome thinks the fellowship of the group may have swayed some members. “West Virginia can be an isolating place, she said. Communities can be far from each other. Im here in southern West Virginia, which is more impoverished than the northern part of the state. But being on Facebook, Im like, Hey, theyre ticked off at the same stuff as we are. Theyre having the same issues, too.”

Teachers also used the group to organize food collection for students, many of whom depend on school meals. (At one West Virginia school, 300 of 430 students rely on two school meals a day for nutrition, according to USA Today.)

The closed Facebook group also became the place where public employees found their collective voice in memes, hashtags, and rap lyrics. Its where the now widespread hashtag #55strong — for the 55 counties of West Virginia, each of which voted to walk out — came from. And its where, protected from the trolls and attack ads of Facebooks main News Feed, teachers shared their anger, often in the form of memes and slogans. At first, these were developed and shared only inside the group. But as members grew bolder, these memes began making their way onto t-shirts, protest signs, and public Facebook feeds, sometimes going what Comer called West Virginia viral.

The memes targeted both the villains and heroes in the teachers strike. Mitch Carmichael, West Virginias Republican senate president, was the main villain, because of his stalwart resistance to the idea of raising teacher pay via oil and gas taxes. Any rap song that had the word bitch in it, they changed it to have Mitch in it, said Comer of the group members.

In the nature of memes, a Facebook post that said Move, Mitch, get out the way! quickly became a photo of Carmichael with the words I should have moved when they told me to get out the way splashed over it.

On the side of the heroes was Democratic West Virginia senator Richard Ojeda, a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan who taught in West Virginia himself for four years and sponsored the gas severance tax. The teachers memes compared Ojeda to Obi-Wan Kenobi, and turned him into a Chuck Norris-esque tough guy character.

The meme of Senate President Carmichael as an evil villain and Senator Ojeda as the working mans savior with guns blazing became so popular, the teachers eventually shared patterns of it in the group and put it on homemade t-shirts.

The group members became so quick at turning moments into memes, that Frankenberry said he started looking for videos and images from the legislature floor or interactions on social media that he could help make … go viral by pushing it through the group.

For example, late on Saturday night, three days before the strike ended, the West Virginia senate meant to pass a bill guaranteeing teachers a 4% raise, but due to a clerical error, accidentally passed an older version stipulating a 5% raise. The legislators went to great logistical effort to undo their mistake, which Frankenberry said was a big middle finger to all the teachers.

[Democratic Senator John] Unger basically called them out for that, he said. I clipped it immediately, and put it on Facebook and pushed it through the group.

In addition to memes, live video was key to spreading information and drumming up support within the teachers movement. Many democrats used Facebook Live to stream from the capitol building or their offices, Frankenberry said, giving the protesters a sense of direct access. Senator Ojedas last three live videos got 163,000, 216,000 and 129,000 views, respectively. Frankenberry said after the capitols live stream repeatedly crashed due to network overload, the government switched to using Facebook, too.

Up until the last few years, reliable Internet access has been limited in many parts of West Virginia, and social media has only recently penetrated certain communities. The sheer reach of these tools made teachers and other public employees not only more comfortable about coming out in favor of a strike online, but eventually with making public demonstrations in real life. Id say this wouldnt have been this successful four or even two years ago, said Frankenberry.

In the last few days, the momentum in West Virginia has spread to Oklahoma, where over 40,000 Facebook users have joined an Oklahoma Teachers United Facebook group, and there are rumblings of walk outs and strikes. A similar Facebook group for teachers in Arizona started Thursday night already has over 20,000 members.

West Virginia does have a long history of wildcat strikes, said Newsome. But in terms of all 55 counties going out, that has never happened, and it would not have happened if it wasnt for social media.

Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

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