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Why More Teachers Will Strike (And Why Some Probably Won’t)
Andrew Pillow
February 25, 2019

Denver Public School teachers just went back to work after a week-long battle with the district. No sooner than that strike ended teachers in another major city walked out. Oakland teachers are now on strike hoping to elicit some kind of change from Oakland Unified School District. This is just the latest in a recent line of strikes.

So, what’s the deal with all these strikes?

It’s impossible to boil down the entire “movement” to a singular issue, but funding is the general theme. Teacher pay and benefits have definitely been the main rallying cry. But class size, and funding for support positions like counselors and nurses are on the table too.

The fact that this is a funding issue is key because education funding is one of the few government spending debates that aren’t controversial. Most people support more funding for schools. Most people think teachers are underpaid. So there is political will behind the teacher complaints.

But these complaints have always existed. Why are teachers just now getting angry enough to strike?

  1.       The strikes have worked

Teachers wouldn’t be striking if they had no chance of working, but they do. Look no further than West Virginia. Almost a year ago to date West Virginia teachers went on strike over teacher pay and health care costs. That strike resulted in a 5% raise. That wasn’t everything they asked for but for teachers and unions, that was a victory. Years of advocating didn’t get that, but two weeks of picket lines did. This laid the blueprint for subsequent strikes and walkouts.

  1.       They have the numbers

Strikes only work in large numbers. If too few people go along with the plan, the bosses will simply replace them. Luckily for teacher unions, there is no shortage of teachers who feel overworked and underpaid. More than enough to reach the critical mass required to strike and force the district’s hand.  

Moreover, these sentiments are not just confined to West Virginia. Teachers all over the country have longed complained about working conditions and compensation. The conditions that caused the strikes in Denver exist all over the place. The perfect recipe for rolling strikes around the country.

  1.       The districts have no viable recourse or leverage

Strikes are dangerous because the striking employees can always be fired like in the case of the air traffic controllers of 1981. In a manufacturing setting, they can move the entire factory overseas. The school districts don’t have this kind of leverage with teachers. In most of districts where strikes are occurring there is a severe teacher shortage. Districts couldn’t replace them if they wanted too. They can’t even fill the vacancies they have now. Obviously, schools aren’t mobile so for the most part when the teachers don’t show up, nobody is there to replace them. This means the ball is in the court of the teachers.

The strikes have been effective but don’t count on seeing them everywhere. Some states saw this coming and have long had laws against teachers or any other public employees striking. Some states like Indiana and Texas have laws against striking. Those laws range in severity but in Texas teachers can permanently lose their teaching certificates and pensions for striking. These types of laws, have thus far been a strong deterrent.

But it’s worth noting that the strikes were technically illegal in some the other affected states too, which indicates that if things get bad enough, teachers may just take that risk.

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