Beginning in February of this year, hundreds of workers in the West Virginia Division of Highways (DOH) have joined a mass grievance protesting the agency’s continued refusal to comply with a legislative mandate to raise pay for all of those tasked with the maintenance and safety of the state’s roadways. At this writing, nearly three hundred workers have signed onto the grievance, which is now pending at the second level of the public employees’ grievance procedure.
In a special session in 2017, the legislature passed a bill to enable the agency to recruit and retain workers, in order to reverse years of neglect and the resulting deterioration of the thousands of miles of roads, highways and bridges used by state residents. The state personnel board instructed the agency to develop a comprehensive pay plan to address the problem.
Rather than complying with that mandate, agency officials proposed a new minimum salary scale that slightly raised pay for the 139 workers stuck at minimum wage, leaving the vast majority of the 5,000 DOH workers unaffected. After months of promises from administrators that relief was “on the way,” DOH workers decided to take matters into their own hands and demand relief.
This action began as the current governor, Jim Justice, began a highly publicized “Roads to Prosperity” campaign to respond to public outcry over potholes and roadway erosion. However, that campaign amounted to nothing more than imposing forced overtime on an already understaffed agency, stretched thin by years of makeshift repairs for an infrastructure of worn, rough and degraded roads.
Legacy of Privatization
The West Virginia Public Workers Union was originally chartered as UE Local 170 in 2007. In September of that same year, suspecting a forthcoming privatization of the highways agency, the new union staged protests of massive highway equipment auctions by DOH. The auctions were conducted under the direction of the DOH equipment division, supervised by Bob Andrew, a political ally of then-governor Joe Manchin.
Manchin, in turn, initiated a program called the “core maintenance plan,” vastly reducing traditional duties of the agency. All major bridge work, stripe painting, signage, and major paving and construction projects were turned over to private, often out-of-state contractors. Many of these same contractors were political campaign contributors or lobbyists. DOH employees were restricted to repairing potholes, patching, mowing weeds and grass on right-of-ways, clearing roadside ditches and doing snow removal and ice control (SRIC) in winter months.
As retirements and other vacancies arose in the agency, positions were not filled. With stagnant pay and eroding benefits, the number of DOH employees shrank, sometimes to a point at which not even the core maintenance duties could be done.
UE Local 170 had been campaigning for raising wages and improving recruitment throughout this period. Under public and legislative pressure, a wage improvement program for DOH workers in the equipment operator classifications was finally implemented. Instead of a step raise program advocated by the union, however, DOH implemented a convoluted “tier” system that did little to resolve the recruitment and retention issues it was ostensibly adopted to redress.
Just as much of a problem, all workers not classified as equipment operators were entirely excluded from the flawed “tier” system altogether. A “solution” designed by bureaucratic administrators, instead of the workers themselves, turned out to be no solution at all.
In 2015, the union’s old nemesis Bob Andrew was charged in a multiple-count federal indictment for political campaign corruption and racketeering. Andrew was fatally shot on September 1, 2015, the very night that federal prosecutors indicted him (the death was ruled a suicide, though questions remain). Regardless of the circumstances of his death, Andrew’s complicity in hollowing out a major state agency was a done deal. The politicians he was close to got off without consequence. The enduring result was a reduction of the ability of state workers to maintain and improve the state’s vast network of roadways, which remain significantly compromised.
Towards a Solution
“The only solution will involve an agency-wide comprehensive pay plan in the form of a step-raise benefitting all workers, irrespective of job classification,” said UE Field Organizer Gordon Simmons, a former West Virginia state worker. “Both the state legislature and the state personnel board have authorized just such a measure. That neither the governor nor DOH can even contemplate such a sensible measure is the reason for the current mass grievance.”