West Virginia’s teachers happy to return to work

CHARLESTON (AP) — West Virginia teachers returned to work as schools reopened Wednesday after winning a sizeable pay increase through a massive mobilization that continued without a hitch as teachers stood their ground when lawmakers didn’t give them what they wanted.

A nine-day statewide strike was declared over Tuesday after the Legislature passed and the governor signed a 5 percent pay raise to end what’s believed to be the longest strike in state history. The last major strike, in 1990, lasted eight days.

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, some of the lowest-paid in the nation, had gone four years without a salary increase.

Embracing the hashtag “55strong” in a nod to the number of counties in the state, teachers and school service personnel arrived at the Capitol daily by the thousands, waiting in long lines in the cold and rain. They ignored the urging of their own union leaders and some politicians to return to school, remaining steadfast in their demands that caught a nation’s attention.

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

A Facebook page established by teachers that became a central link for communications and organizing now has more than 24,000 subscribers.

Anyone who wants to join now has to be invited in, said Ryan Frankenberry, state director of the West Virginia Working Families Party.

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. There’s interest in whether what happened in West Virginia, from the outside considered overwhelmingly red, can work elsewhere, he said.

“It’s definitely the buzz of our national organization,” Frankenberry said.

Despite losing nine school days, the teachers had support from parents and students, even as they extended their walkout until a third attempt from lawmakers met their demands.

Now they’re back at work, and students are back to their books.

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 doesn’t want summer feeding programs placed in jeopardy if classes go too far into June.