In the last few weeks we have seen the return of general strikes as teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma left their classrooms. The phenomenon appears ready to spread to other states as educators seek better pay and improved working conditions, particularly in those state which do not have collective bargaining with teachers and other school staff.
General strikes and wildcat stoppages were once more common. In 1934, walkouts hit San Francisco and Minneapolis, and smaller wildcat strikes spread across the country. The labor relationship was in tumult.
What brought order to the process? In 1935, Congress passes the National Labor Relations Act which established the rules and procedures governing unions and management. While there were still strikes, they were smaller in scope and limited to specific bargaining units.
In Ohio, we saw a similar change following the passage of the public sector collective bargaining law in the mid-1980’s. Prior to this legislation, teacher and other public-sector entities conducted walkouts in locations across the state. While the new law gave public employees the limited right to strike, it also brought order to the process. The number of work stoppages dropped significantly. Prior to the act, there were average of 60 public sector strikes each year in Ohio. Since then, the number of walkouts is significantly less, with only three teacher strikes from 2010 to 2017.
A statewide strike in Ohio is neither necessary nor realistically possible as districts each have their own collectively bargained contracts. These agreements, along with real labor-management cooperative efforts in many districts, ended the chaos we saw in the past.
This illustrates a key factor that contributed to the statewide strikes we have seen. In West Virginia, Oklahoma, and others where there is no local collective bargaining for salaries and benefits. Salaries are set by their legislatures, leaving school employees (and overall funding for education) to political whims and agendas.
As a result, wages for teachers in these states are very low, and conditions for students are deteriorating. In West Virginia, the average K-12 teacher salary was $45,662. Nationally, the average was over $58,000. This large disparity was an obvious cause of the strikes, but so were declining opportunities for students in these states.
Oklahoma teachers shared stories and photos of crumbling textbooks, broken furniture, and districts so poor they could not afford to keep classroom lights on. Substandard learning conditions hurt opportunities for students. The response from Oklahoma Governor Mary Falin (R) showed her contempt for educators, as she stated the teachers were like “a teenage kid that wants a better car.” It would appear the destruction of the public education system is high on her agenda.
Collective bargaining and labor-management cooperation in schools do not necessarily make things wonderful. They do provide districts and employees the opportunity to negotiate contracts and resolve problems through labor-management partnerships. Decisions can be made locally by those impacted by the problems, not legislators with little understanding or even desire to correct problems.
Some may assume educator negotiations or collaborative efforts have little to do with student needs, but this is not true. Teachers, school staff, and administrators often work collaboratively to address student concerns such as class offerings, teaching strategies, minimizing the impact of standardized testing on instruction, and other needs specific to their districts or building.
Schools benefit from the opportunities provided by employee involvement and worker voice. States that permit teachers and districts to bargain collectively and work collaboratively are less likely to have conditions that contribute to statewide strikes. While teacher unions are unjustly criticized for their impact on education, labor-management cooperation between them and school districts benefits Boards of Education, school administrators, teachers, and students.