This Martin Luther King Day, the St. Croix Federation of Teachers will protest the V.I. government’s decision to withhold this year’s contracted pay raises due to massive revenue shortfalls, its president James Howell confirmed Tuesday.
“We are having the protest march because the government has reneged on its contractual arrangements,” Howell said. The union always plays a major role in the annual MLK Day march on St. Croix, he said, so the difference this year is largely one of focus, with marchers carrying signs about the raises.
According to Howell, salaries for V.I. teachers and paraprofessionals “rank near the bottom, nationally.” Information available online from the national offices of the American Federation of Teachers and other sources is limited (and out of date) but generally confirms Howell’s assertion.
Asked how the government could afford pay raises in a year in which it borrowed $400 million—using $100 million to pay salaries and avoid layoffs, while mandating across-the-board departmental budget cuts—Howell said the teacher raises were a relatively small amount of money and that the government regularly cries poverty as a way to avoid pay increases.
“Every year, when it is time for incremental increases, there is always a cry that there is no money,” he said. Howell also disputed that the government’s budget woes and borrowing were connected to the annual incremental pay increases.
“I can assure you the government never borrowed $400 million to pay teachers,” he said.
The pay increases amount to roughly $4 every two weeks for paraprofessionals and just under $70 for teachers over the same period, he said. “That’s just a hundred dollars a year for each paraprofessional,” he said.
What would the pay raises cost the government? According to Howell, his union has a membership of nearly 1,200; if every one of those members were a teacher (and they are not), the incremental pay raise would cost roughly $4.3 million on St. Croix, and nearly $8.6 million territory-wide, given the similar size of the St. Thomas–St. John district.
The real figure would be less, in proportion to the percentage of union members who are paraprofessionals.
Howell asked everyone in the community to come out in support of the union for the Jan. 17 march.
“Remember, Martin Luther King stood up not only for civil rights but for decent wages and collective bargaining,” he said. “He was where he was on the day he died in support of sanitation workers who were on strike,” he said.
The annual march generally starts around 10 a.m., winding past Sunny Isles and up to St. Croix Island Center for a rally.