Educators staged an illegal strike in Woburn, Mass., in February. The issue of allowing educators to unionize and strike has divided states and even Democrats across the country. Vincent Ricci/Sipa via The Associated Press
Illinois Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker recently signed a bill allowing Chicago school principals to unionize and possibly go on strike. But Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey, also a Democrat and in an equally liberal state, said just the other day she opposes legislation that would explicitly permit teachers to strike.
Across the country, teachers and other employees in public schools continue to struggle with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as pressure from parents and politicians ramps up on divisive matters such as LGBTQ-themed library books and classroom discussions of racism and gender identity.
Add perennially poor pay to the mix, and the result is deep dissatisfaction among educators — and threats of work stoppages that are splitting even union-supporting Democrats.
In about a dozen states, teacher strikes are specifically legal. In the remaining states, strikes are illegal, whether by statute singling them out or in a general law aimed at public sector unions. In some of those places, illegal strikes happen with a wink and a nod to the law and a tacit agreement to use union funds to pay whatever fines are levied as punishment.
Whether such strikes are legal is contested in South Carolina and Wyoming, according to a breakdown from the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.
States and cities are charged with providing essential services to the public, a free K-12 education among them. But governments recognize that if most teachers refuse to work, it’s impossible to keep schools running, said Jon Shelton, a democracy and justice studies professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, and an education unions and strikes expert.
“Teacher unions can be punished for going on strike illegally, but you really can’t stop them because it’s hard to find and replace [them],” Shelton said.
The pandemic has put unprecedented pressure on teachers and other educators. During the pandemic’s first year or two, many educators had to teach online as well as in person, sometimes at the same time. Teachers were deputized to enforce social distancing, masking and cleanliness rules. Meanwhile, many worried about their own safety.
As a result, according to Shelton, embattled teachers have begun to feel they deserve more attention, deference and compensation. And surveys show that teachers have the respect of both students and parents, emboldening educators to ask for more.
“That’s led to teachers feeling like they need more control over the workplace,” he said.
Even after a series of teacher strikes across the country in 2018, a USA Today/Ipsos poll showed two-thirds of Americans supported allowing teachers to strike for higher pay, more funding for schools and better benefits. And during the height of the pandemic, other polls revealed support for walkouts because of safety concerns.
Teachers unions like to draw a connection between educator welfare and student performance, Shelton pointed out. “It’s bargaining for the common good.”
In Illinois, that led to a drive to bring administrators — principals and assistant principals — into the collective bargaining.
A strike that ended in February in Woburn, Massachusetts, is typical of technically illegal walkouts. Teachers and other educators went on strike when they could not agree on a new contract to raise salaries. After five days of no classes, the city administration advanced a better offer, and the union approved it.
The contract increased teacher salaries by 13.5% over four years. Paraprofessionals (formerly known as teacher’s aides), whose salaries start at $22,621, will get a 40% raise. Because teacher strikes are technically illegal in Massachusetts, the union was slapped with $85,000 in state fines and $225,000 in city fines. Similar work stoppages occurred last year in the Massachusetts cities of Haverhill, Malden and Brookline.
A bill in the Massachusetts legislature would explicitly permit teachers and other educators to strike. State Sen. Rebecca Rausch, a Democrat, is among a group of lawmakers who introduced the legislation, which would allow public teachers and other educators to strike after six months of unsuccessful negotiations.
A similar bill garnered little attention last year, Rausch said in a phone interview, but in the wake of the Woburn strike and several others in the state, “the landscape is notably different.”
“We’re seeing a lot of change in the landscape and a lot of parent and family support in particular,” she said.
But that support does not extend to Democratic Gov. Healey.
Healey’s spokesperson, Karissa Hand, wrote by email that Healey — the daughter of union educators — is focused on “keeping kids in school, making sure they receive a high-quality education and supporting our hardworking educators. She does not believe right to strike legislation is the solution to move forward on those goals.”
Rausch said the governor’s stance illustrates that Democrats “are not a monolith. This is a conversation starter. It’s the start of a term — her first term as governor. It’s a healthy debate.”
Massachusetts Teachers Association President Max Page is optimistic that Healey can be persuaded to support educators’ right to strike.
“She understands concerns educators have,” Page said. “If she meets with some of our members, I think she may see that this bill would make strikes less likely.” He also noted the backing of parents in Woburn and other places as a powerful tool for teachers.
In Illinois, Gov. Pritzker appeared to need no persuading. He signed the law allowing school administrators to collectively bargain, and possibly strike under certain circumstances, without comment.
Mailee Smith, an attorney with the right-leaning nonprofit organization Illinois Policy Institute, expects varying interpretations of the new law to spark litigation.
Allowing school principals and assistant principals to unionize, she said, “is a conflict of interest because they are supposed to be supervisors and managers.”
As Democrats in union states wrestle with just how much power to offer educators and their unions, some lawmakers in right-to-work states are still trying to give teachers any collective bargaining power. Most states still don’t allow teacher strikes.
In Mississippi, for example, state Rep. Earle Banks, a Jackson Democrat, introduced legislation this year that would have allowed the state’s teachers to unionize. It got shot down in committee almost immediately.
Banks wasn’t surprised. “I think they should have the right to strike like anybody else,” Banks said. “We have been so poorly compensating our teachers and educators.”
But Banks, who has been in the legislature for 30 years, said he will continue to introduce the bill.
“Sometimes,” he said, “you have to file to let people know you are thinking of them.”
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