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State Senate: Public worker strikes are illegal

Photo Courtesy/WV Legislative Photography SENATE BILL 11 — Behind a plexiglass shield, Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker explains the purpose of Senate Bill 11.

CHARLESTON — After two years of work stoppages by teachers and school service personnel, a majority of the West Virginia Senate made it clear Monday that strikes and work stoppages by public employees are against the law.

Senate Bill 11, declaring work stoppages or strikes by public employees to be unlawful, passed 21-12. The only Republican to vote against the bill was Sen. David Stover, R-Wyoming, a retired school teacher. The bill now heads to the House of Delegates.

Strikes and work stoppages by public employees are already illegal. A 1990 decision by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in a dispute between the Jefferson County Board of Education and teachers in that county states “public employees have no right to strike in the absence of express legislation or, at the very least, appropriate statutory provisions for collective bargaining, mediation and arbitration.”

“It basically just states what is already the legal opinion of the Supreme Court,” said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson. “It’s not changing anything legal.”

SB 11 takes that decision and puts it directly into state code. Any county board of education employee would be considered a participant in a work stoppage or strike if they don’t report to work as required. The bill would allow county school boards to consider any such participation grounds for dismissal.

The bill prohibits school employees from using personal leave during work stoppages and strikes and prohibits county school boards from paying prorated salaries or hourly pay for any days missed by the school employee during a work stoppage or strike and requires the sums to be forfeited.

SB 11 also prevents county boards from using accrued instructional time or alternative methods of instruction to make up lost days of instruction due to a work stoppage or strike. It prohibits the state Board of Education from granting waivers to county school boards to meet the 200-day employment term for the employee or the 180-day minimum instructional time. The bill requires extracurricular activities to be canceled on days when work stoppages and strikes occur.

“This actually frees up the county boards of education to know how to act in the future,” Rucker said. “This not a retaliatory bill. This is about making certain our kids, our most precious resource, continue to remain our priority.”

Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, disagreed. Speaking after Monday’s vote on SB 11, Lindsay said the bill was the wrong priority after previously passing two education bills during the session.

“We’re two weeks into this session, but the third bill is a bill that is more or less just retribution,” Lindsay said. “Everyone knows already that through case law and common law that it’s illegal for public employees to strike. Yet, the Senate leadership with all their power and all their responsibilities wants to take time to just codify it.”

West Virginia experienced two recent work stoppages of teachers and school service personnel. The first in 2018 was over a proposed pay raise teachers and staff believed was too low. After 14 days, the Legislature approved a 5 percent pay increase. In 2019, teachers and staff held another work stoppage to protest an education omnibus bill being pushed by the Senate at the time.

Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, pointed out Monday marked the three-year anniversary of the 2018 work stoppage. An official in the United Mine Workers of America, Caputo said public employees don’t have the same rights as private sector unions have.

“They don’t have collective bargaining … they have collective begging,” Caputo said. “They live and die by the actions of the Legislature. It’s mean-spirited. It’s wrong for West Virginia.”

Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said the COVID-19 pandemic has already demonstrated the harm caused to children academically and emotionally by not being in classrooms with teachers. Tarr said there needs to be consequences when teachers purposely walk out of classrooms.

“How did it proceed that we have no consequence for the past couple of work stoppages that have happened,” Tarr said. “Given this pandemic and with past teacher strikes, we have seniors in high school who have yet to see a full year of school due to the work stoppages that preceeded the pandemic.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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