Everyone is talking about teacher strikes. After a nine-day wildcat strike, West Virginia teachers scored a historic victory, securing a 5 percent pay raise for all state public employees. Oklahoma teachers are on the brink of following suit, and widespread dissatisfaction is being reported among teachers in Kentucky and Arizona.
This is remarkable, and not only because teachers unions have seen major declines in participation in recent years. It takes a lot for teachers to decide to walk out of their classrooms.
I’ve been through two teacher strikes in my thirty-nine-year-long career as a teacher, and I can offer some observations about what it takes.
For my first strike, in the fall of 1979, I was a first-year teacher and had just signed my contract. The strike was an ugly standoff between a superintendent, who had reportedly been hired to put the union in its place, and a union that was solidly against him (the strike vote was 760 – 4). The strike lasted six weeks, and created huge financial and personal stress for everyone involved (and at the end of the year, seventy-some teachers were laid off).
For the second strike, in 2002, I was the local union president. It was not a role I ever imagined playing, and it was a huge challenge to get through without permanently damaging relationships with the staff and community. I’ve never taken a union position since—I’m pretty sure I’ve paid my dues.
It takes a lot for teachers to decide to walk out of their classrooms.
Strikes do not happen because a handful of teachers get cranky. They don’t happen because a union somehow cons teachers into walking out. Most teachers really, really, REALLY don’t want to strike. They are by nature team players, good soldiers, and respecters of authority. They don’t want to break the rules.
Teachers also worry about their students, and how they will fare in their absence. West Virginia teachers, for example, made sure their students didn’t go hungry while school was closed. They are also concerned about how a strike might affect their relationships with the students and their families.
Teachers also very much believe in negotiation and compromise. At every step of our strike in 2002, there were teachers who insisted that board members had bad information, and that they would support the teachers if they just understood the truth. Many teachers—despite evidence to the contrary—really want to hold onto the belief their administration, their school board, and the taxpayers want what’s best for public schools.
So what does it take to move teachers to strike?
- A lack of good faith bargaining.
In the Pennsylvania 2002 strike, our contract talks began with the board proposing to alter language on a few dozen items. They were using a tactic described as stripping, where the board proposes to take away an arm and a leg, so their “compromise” is to only take the arm—which means they actually give up nothing at all. We saw this as an early sign that the board and superintendent were not interested in settling a contract as much as they wanted us to submit. I must have said a hundred times, “The contract is not a battle to be won by one side or the other, but a problem to be solved by both sides together.”
- A long pattern of disrespect.
One of a system’s best “protections” against a strike is a strong relationship between teachers and their bosses. When school leaders trash that relationship, they remove one of the rails that would otherwise make teachers reluctant to strike. Administrators and school boards may make hundreds of disrespectful decisions, each one too small to provoke action all by itself. But eventually they add up to a larger picture of systemic disrespect. I’ve always argued that many strikes could be averted if districts just treated their teachers like grown-up professionals instead of untrustworthy ten-year-olds.
- Teachers’ concern about the future.
Teacher strikes are not just about making a decent living under decent working conditions. Teachers want to work with qualified and capable colleagues. At some point, you look around and ask (as West Virginia teachers did), who is ever going to come work here? Do I really want to spend the rest of my career working with people who settled for this job because nobody else would hire them? Do I want to watch all my best colleagues continually leave for greener pastures? Do I want the children that I’ve centered my career around to be educated in a school that provides them with meager and inadequate resources? The answer is always no.
At one point Pennsylvania passed a law that said both A) there has to be a strike before the district is moved to binding arbitration, and B) that the school year must be completed by a specific date in June, essentially setting a date that the strike must end. This law made strikes both A) more likely to happen and B) less likely to be effective. You can try, as West Virginia did, to declare strikes against the law for teachers, but I’m pretty sure that’s meaningless—teachers mostly feel as if they’re breaking the rules when they strike, anyway.
- Creating a situation where teachers see no options.
Even though some folks like to blame the union for stirring things up, the people who can best convince teachers that they are out of options are not union leaders at all, but the people on the other side.
Again, there is nothing that teachers would rather do less than strike. Getting a majority of them to do so is really, really hard. But if you convince them that things are never going to get better, that they will never be treated with respect, that work conditions will never reach an acceptable level, that the People In Charge will never sit down with them in a serious attempt to improve the situation—they will strike. The irony of course is that even though some folks like to blame the union for stirring things up, the people who can best convince teachers that they are out of options are not union leaders at all, but the people on the other side. Nothing I could say as union president had the impact of teachers seeing the school board’s chief negotiator on TV saying something along the lines of, “Oh, we have the money for raises. We just don’t want to give it to them.”
It will be interesting to see if we are truly entering a new era of teacher empowerment. Many of the contributing factors I’ve listed above—the disrespect, the concern for the future of schools, the unwillingness to hear teachers—is now part of the national education landscape. Will it make more teachers feel as if they’re out of options? I guess we’re about to find out.
Peter Greene has been a classroom secondary English teacher for over thirty-five years. He lives and works in a small town in Northwest Pennsylvania, blogs at Curmudgucation, and is Midwest Regional Progressive Education Fellow.