The Public Good
What’s at Stake in the West Virginia Teacher Strike
This is about the teachers, yes, and about organized labor—but also about the larger and more generous view of the public good that these incessant tax-cutters want us to have.
When I was growing up in Morgantown, West Virginia, the best place for sled riding, by far, was Med Center Hill. It was long and steep; in my memory, a ride from top to bottom in those days took 30 seconds. That’s a big hill, one of the most prominent in the whole town.
I bet it probably wasn’t an accident that they decided to build the West Virginia University Medical Center on the top of that hill. They wanted people to see it, admire it, know it was there. When I was young, it was the pride of our town. Before it opened in 1957, the university had only a two-year medical school in a plain three-story building; students had to carry cadavers from the basement to an outside door, then around the back, then back inside, and finally up three flights of stairs to the anatomy labs.
The med center was, at the time, a staggering thing for a state like West Virginia to have. A modern teaching and research facility with hundreds of hospital beds besides. And it was a work of real public architecture. It’s the big white building in the foreground here; the blue windows with the geometric shapes suggest an internationalist influence and a hint of Mondrian. Four marble pylons were erected outside on a plaza (see this gorgeous photograph), into which a sculptor from the state etched scenes from the history of medicine—Aristotle comparing the bone structures of different animals, Pasteur injecting the rabies vaccine into the brain of a dog. Everything about that building bespoke a seriousness of public purpose, a commitment to the common good, and a faith in progress and passion to contribute to it.
It was built with a tax. A one-cent tax on soda pop, or just “pop” as it’s typically called there. I still remember being a little boy and my father explaining all that to me—how a tax of a mere penny on something as insignificant as a bottle of soda pop could produce something this majestic.
The West Virginia of today would never build that medical center.
It’s a tax, after all. Now I should note that this pop tax is still collected; doing away with it would destroy the viability of what is now a vastly expanded medical campus known as the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center. The Republicans who now run things in Charleston have that much sense.
But new taxes, for any public purpose, are largely verboten. Last year, when Governor Jim Justice was still a Democrat, he wanted $450 million in various new taxes. The Republicans, who control both houses of the legislature by huge margins, passed a budget with no tax increases (just increased revenue estimates and some adjustments) and many millions of dollars in cuts, including the cancellation of a planned teachers' raise. Justice refused to sign it, though it took effect.
This is the context in which one needs to understand what the state’s teachers are striking against. There was a very good piece at HuffPost over the weekend by Dave Jamieson laying out the history. Tax cuts, especially on corporate and business taxes, starting in 2006 eventually led to huge budget gaps. This started under Democrat Joe Manchin, now a senator, then the governor. Manchin said at the time that the cuts were needed to attract business, and there’s something to that; West Virginia is surrounded by states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia) that have more money to offer most employers.
But the hole it blew in the budget was huge, and there’s no money to do things like pay teachers, who haven’t had a raise since 2014. And just as corporations can move, so can teachers: about half the state’s counties border on another state (in Maryland and Pennsylvania, teachers average nearly $20,000 more a year than in West Virginia).
I don’t know what’s going to happen with this strike. The teachers want 5 percent. The state House of Delegates, which is nearly two-thirds Republican, voted 98-1 to give it to them. The more conservative State Senate voted for 4 percent. It seems silly for 19 Republican state senators to do this over a single percentage point. Another less-discussed sticking point is the way public employees' out-of-pocket health care costs have spiked, despite the flat pay.
They’re a deeply conservative bunch, the State Senate. The GOP took control after the 2014 elections, and it’s just been getting more and more conservative ever since. The American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate-funded lobbying group that wants to destroy unions, environmental regulations, and such like has a presence in Charleston. Ditto the Foundation for Government Accountability, which wants to privatize health care and stop Medicaid expansion. There’s a liberal counterpart, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, but it’s outgunned.
“I hear so often from state senators, ‘I don’t like many of these bills, but we have to run them,’” says the center’s Ted Boettner. “Because that’s what the leadership told them to do.”
On the strike, Boettner doesn’t know of any polls but senses that the public is, for now, on the teachers’ side. “A lot of people I know who were Trump supporters are out there picketing,” he told me. I hope that holds out. People are spending money to put their kids in daycare every day. State senators know this. Maybe they’re waiting for nerves to fray and public opinion to curdle.
But if the teachers win, it will be a dramatically important moment. Not just for labor—organized labor, which once ruled this state, now a pariah there. It will also be a victory for a larger and more generous view of the public good than these incessant tax-cutters want us to have; the view that built that medical center. If poor West Virginians are willing to put up with some inconvenience and see that teachers are paid better, maybe people elsewhere can start to see such things again, too.