At the center of all of these fights are long-standing issues: Teachers in each state have, for decades, been among the most poorly paid members of their profession around the country, and face mounting costs for basic health care and retirement benefits. That all three of these strikes have happened in states that have been historically dependent on the extractive industry is also no coincidence. The automation, and then decline, of the coal industry — due largely to the rise of natural gas — has led to shrinking tax bases in West Virginia and Kentucky, and in eastern Kentucky especially. In Oklahoma, massive tax giveaways to the oil and gas industry have landed the state in a budget crisis. West Virginia public employees are calling to raise severance taxes on coal and oil to fund their health insurance, and the pretext for the battle in Oklahoma was a years-running campaign to repeal the subsidies that helped deprive their schools of necessary supplies.
“There is a clear connection between the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been siphoned off in tax breaks for oil and gas production and the state’s inability to adequately fund our teachers and school operations and public employees,” said David Blatt, Director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
West Virginia and Oklahoma are ranked 48th and 49th, respectively, in average teacher salary, according to the National Education Association, while Kentucky is doing better at 26th.