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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 20th July 2018 > Class Struggle

Class Struggle

TEACHING MOMENT Deep cuts to budgets have meant larger classes and shrinking salaries for educators, who are tapping their own pocketbooks to help students.
IMAGE BY C.J. Burton

ON THE EVENING OF FEBRUARY 1, TINA Adams peered out the window of her hotel room in Charleston, West Virginia. It had been snowing for hours, and the roads were freezing over. Earlier in the day, she had driven two hours north from coal country to set the stage for a protest at the state Capitol.

Adams, a middle school teacher and mother of six, was furious. After 15 years at Baileysville Elementary and Middle School, in Brenton, she made about $47,000 a year—$12,000 less than the national average. Like many of her fellow teachers, she sometimes worked nights and weekends to boost her income; for extra pay, she offered private tutoring for students who had discipline problems or developmental disabilities.

It wasn’t always enough, and Adams had begun thinking about selling her beloved Harley- Davidson Sportster to help her daughter buy a car. It was not the kind of life she envisioned when she launched her teaching career. And now, the state’s governor, Jim Justice, was reneging on a long-promised pay raise and hiking health insurance premiums. Officials even wanted teachers to download a smartphone app to track their daily steps or face a financial penalty. As the president of her local union, Adams pushed for a walkout. “It’s like all of us teachers had been pushed to the side and forgotten about,” she tells me. “We finally reached a point where we were fed up.”

And yet, as the snow fell in Charleston that night, Adams worried. She had organized her school’s field trips and class dances—nothing like this. What if no one showed up? Her home in the southern part of the state had been an old union stronghold, yet West Virginia was now Trump country. Teachers hadn’t taken any kind of major labor action in 30 years.

But the next day, Adams watched as a caravan of school buses rolled into the Capitol parking lot, horns honking. State snow plow drivers, supportive of the teachers’ cause, had gone out of their way to clear a path on the interstate. Together, hundreds of educators from four counties filed into the statehouse to demand better pay and benefits. Their chants of “We’re not gonna take it!” bounced around the cavernous rotunda. The one-day walkout— dubbed “Fed-Up Friday”—garnered local headlines. Lawmakers, however, barely shrugged; the Republican-led Legislature debated a bill that would give educators a minimal pay raise, but many grumbled the state didn’t have enough money to cover it.


The message of Adams and her fellow demonstrators might not have reached Washington, but the protest had a profound effect on West Virginia. Teachers from around the state had watched a live stream of the protest while they prepared their lesson plans, and three weeks later, they joined in. For nine days, every public school in West Virginia shut down, as thousands of teachers from all 55 counties decamped to Charleston, the longest strike in the state’s history. Amid a sea of red T-shirts, one homemade sign in particular seemed to capture their message: “Empty promises, empty schools.”

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