What Happens When Active Participation Replaces Spectatorship?

Educators and school service personnel kept watch over the Conference Committee on HB 4145 during their deliberations earlier this week. Photo by Will Price, Legislative Photographer.

BY: TAYLOR BENNETT, POLICY COORDINATOR, THE HUB

With HB 4145 passed on Tuesday, and schools back in session on Wednesday, there can be no doubt – this week has seen a huge victory for teachers and public workers in WV.

Their ability to organize this strike, to hold firm in the face of powerful opposition, and to demand that their voices be included in this policy discussion gave legislators no choice but to accept their participation in the legislative process. Teachers fought for and achieved one of the key changes that they were striking for.

One of the primary things that the teachers’ strike has demonstrated to me, other than the incredible organizing power of West Virginians, is the terrible lack of participation that is allowed and encouraged through our legislative process.

As citizens, we are openly offered very few, very specific ways in which to participate in the process and there is a very prescribed method by which we’re supposed to enact our participation. It’s not an unfair assessment to say that this approach is a part of what caused the systemic situation that led to the teachers’ strike in the first place.

Under normal circumstances, the legislative process would have relegated teachers to the sidelines, making them spectators in discussions about pay raises and PEIA, rather than active participants. That was, and still is, the expectation for the majority of the legislative process.

In order to have their concerns impact decision-making, in order to have their needs guide legislative action, every county in the state needed to close school. Crowds at the Capitol had to reach into the thousands and legislative leadership had to be backed into a political corner that they couldn’t get out of any other way.

What does that say about how responsive the legislative system can be to the needs of communities in our state?

While a major concern of teachers and public workers was addressed by the passage of HB 4145, there are other, systems level changes that teachers were calling for that have yet to be addressed.

Governor Justice’s deal with teachers promises to set up a task force with seats at the table for representatives of  teachers’ interests. However, with almost a quarter of a million people on PEIA, this is not an improvement to the level of participation that teachers were offered before they went on strike.

Throughout the strike, a recurring theme in rally chants was the idea of remembering those who supported teachers’ needs and those who did not when it comes time to vote in November (primary elections are also coming up in May). This gets me thinking:

Voting is just one way that we citizens can participate in our legislative process.

What could be achieved if teachers and their supporters pushed for greater participation now, throughout the work of the PEIA task force, and leading up to November?

Perhaps this time, teachers’ concerns could impact a decision-making process from the beginning.

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