Brooke County teachers protest pending legislation

RAISING THEIR VOICES — Many Brooke County teachers formed an informational picket along state Route 2 and in front of Follansbee Middle School Monday in response to concerns about pending legislation affecting their pay, benefits, seniority and paycheck deductions. -- Warren Scott

FOLLANSBEE — A Brooke County teacher said he and other West Virginia teachers aren’t only unhappy about a proposed increase in health care coverage and low pay.

They also are opposed to pending legislation that would affect their seniority and ability to have dues for professional organizations come out of their paychecks, said Ron Ujcich, a Brooke County teacher and president of the school district’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

He was among many Brooke County teachers who formed an informational picket along state Route 2 and near Follansbee Middle School Monday afternoon.

Ujcich said pending legislation would eliminate a teacher’s seniority as a factor when considering layoffs and transfers.

That means school boards would no longer be required to protect the jobs of the most experienced teachers, he said.

Ujcich said Senate Bill 335, which recently was passed by the state Senate by a 20-13 vote, has been dubbed by supporters as the Paycheck Protection Act but would eliminate teachers’ freedom to have dues for their membership in the AFT or West Virginia Education Association, another teachers group, taken from their pay.

The two groups have wielded political influence on past state legislatures but, unlike teacher unions in other states, membership isn’t mandatory.

Ujcich acknowledged the state Public Employee Insurance Agency “is at a financial shortfall but they keep putting it on the backs of teachers and other state employees.”

He said a 1 percent pay increase for each of the next five years proposed by Gov. Jim Justice wouldn’t be enough to offset their increased cost for health care.

Justice called for a one-year freeze on PEIA rates, but many teachers aren’t optimistic that will occur and note that if it does, it will be temporary.

Emily Beall, another Brooke County teacher on the picket line, said many people misunderstand the financial picture for teachers.

“They think of us being off in summers and on holidays, but we only get paid for the days we work,” she said.

Beall said while the average teacher’s salary has been cited as being about $47,000, salaries for many younger teachers are closer to $30,000.

The pending legislation has led to walk-outs in some counties, but Ujcich said he sees a teacher’s strike “as a last resort.”

Ujcich said he’s hopeful state legislators will hear the concerns of not only teachers but many other state employees who would be affected by the pending legislation.

He said teachers from throughout the state will be joined by many other state employees at a rally in Charleston Saturday.

“We’re all on board and we’re taking this fight together,” Ujcich said.