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W.Va. Teachers Go Out on Strike Over Pay Raises

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After several weeks of heated protests, West Virginia teachers last week launched the state's first statewide teachers' strike when an agreement with Gov. Gaston Caperton over proposed salary increases unraveled.

Discontent among the state's 22,000-member teaching force had been mounting since mid-January, when Governor Caperton did not include raises for teachers in his proposed budget for fiscal 1991.

West Virginia teachers' pay--an average of $22,000 a year--ranks 49th in the nation.

Although there have been several one-day statewide teacher walkouts recently, full-fledged statewide teacher strikes are rare. In 1968, 30,000 Florida teachers staged a three-week strike.

As of March 9, teachers in 39 of West Virginia's 55 counties had gone on strike, and more were expected to do so early this week.

State union officials, who said the decision to strike was being made on a county-by-county basis, predicted that teachers in at least 45 counties would strike. Teachers in 10 counties voted against striking.

"Teachers have just had enough," said Kayetta Meadows, president of the 16,000-member West Virginia Education Association. "Their backs are to the wall. They just couldn't take it any longer."

Late last week, the state's attorney general, Roger W. Tompkins, declared the strike illegal and said teachers could face misdemeanor charges for disturbing schools. Seven picketing teachers were arrested in Kanawha County for obstructing the passage of a school bus.

The strike effectively closed most schools in the affected counties, although some remained open with skeleton staffs, union officials said.

Governor Caperton last week began negotiating with the leaders of the state's two teachers' unions after thousands of teachers staged demonstrations at the Capitol on Feb. 15 and March 2-3.

Late-Night Session

During a late-night negotiating session March 5, he proposed giving teachers and higher-education employees a 5 percent pay raise and continuing the state's policy of paying the entire cost of teachers' health-insurance benefits.

The increased cost--estimated by the Governor's office to be $35 million for salaries and $6.5 million for the health-care benefits--was to be financed by closing a state tax loophole designed to attract new business, and by increasing the state tax on coal production.

In return, the Governor requested that both of the teachers' unions drop their threats to strike and join in an intensive lobbying effort to persuade lawmakers to approve the package. Both the w.v.e.a. and the 3,000-member West Virginia Federation of Teachers agreed.

The next morning, however, the agreement collapsed.

Mr. Caperton accused the w.v.e.a. of refusing to abandon its threat of widespread strikes. The union said the Governor had "reneged" on his promises because he did not have the votes in the legislature to pass the tax increase.

After it became clear that Mr. Caperton would not ask the legislature to pay for the proposal, the first walkouts began.

Governor Will Not 'Bend'

In an address to a special joint session of the state legislature the night of March 7, Mr. Caperton warned that the state "will not conduct its affairs under intimidation." Given the state's weak economic condition, he said, his proposal was "exceptionally fair and reasonable."

"I cannot and I will not bend to this misguided pressure," the Governor said, adding that he would resume negotiations only after teachers returned to their classrooms.

Union leaders said they were "not enthusiastic" about the Governor's salary proposal. They questioned whether teachers would actually have received 5 percent raises after the increases were adjusted under a state salary-equalization formula.

"They were sketchy figures," said William McGinley, the w.v.e.a.'s general counsel. "It was clearly not 5 percent across the board."

Ms. Meadows said union leaders had agreed to call off their strike threat only for the rest of the current legislative session--which was scheduled to end at midnight last Saturday unless legislators could not reach agreement on the state budget.

The union took that position, she said, because it had been stung three years ago in a similar salary dispute after promising legislators not to strike. That legislative session ended without any teacher raises being8passed, Ms. Meadows said.

"Legislators now feel like they're being threatened by the teachers," said Barbara Christain, president of the w.v.f.t. "Right now the mood is that they not negotiate."

In the face of declining enrollments, the state last year offered teachers an incentive to retire early and instituted a policy of hiring one new teacher for every two vacancies. The cost savings--an estimated $32 million--were to have gone toward teacher salaries, Ms. Christain said.

"The Governor lost credibility when he took that $32 million and put it somewhere else," she said.

Mr. Caperton's press secretary, G.C. Morse, said the money was absorbed into the state budget, not spent on other programs.

Despite campaign promises not to raise taxes, Governor Caperton last year backed $200 million in tax increases for education. The money went to increase teachers' salaries and to provide funding for the state's troubled teacher-retirement system and the health-insurance fund that covers teachers.

Such measures have amply demonstrated the Governor's interest in improving the conditions of teaching in West Virginia, Mr. Morse suggested.

"On the issue of teacher compensation, there isn't a whole lot of dispute between teachers and this office," he said. "We agree that they are paid too little, period. But it's another thing to find the money to make a difference."

Teachers received their first pay raise in three years in January, when their salaries increased 5 percent.

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