Jon Shelton is an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. He is author of “Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order.”
The media loves a good labor stoppage. The nonstop coverage of teacher demonstrations in West Virginia earlier this year and now in Oklahoma and Kentucky proves it.
But these walkouts are more than publicity stunts. Public school teachers have enormous bargaining power, and some of the lowest paid have clearly realized it. Just as happened in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the price of peace will come from treating teachers like the important professionals they are.
Labor strikes are high drama. Services shut down and employers are forced to take action that had been unthinkable before: Either bend to workers’ demands or try to find other ways to keep operations going (for instance, finding replacements willing to cross a picket line).
The fact that teachers — whom we rely on to instill morals in our children in addition to instructing them how to read, write and do arithmetic — walk off the job, doing so illegally, makes a teacher strike even more fascinating.
Striking teachers present a special problem. Kids can’t go to school when teachers are out, causing immediate inconvenience to parents. Indeed, there’s no other time like a strike for us to realize what an important yet unnoticed child-care subsidy that schools represent. But employers have few options other than to bargain when teachers are united. Oklahoma can’t replace 40,000 teachers any more than West Virginia can replace 20,000.
It is only in the past 30 years, however, that the teacher strikes we see today have become so exceptional. Strikes by teachers in the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s could be measured annually by the dozens, not by the handful.
Although statewide strikes were infrequent, there were numerous strikes in school districts across the United States during this era, sometimes affecting millions of students at a time. In 1967, for example, there were more than 100 teacher strikes in the United States. And in the 1975-1976 school year, there were more than 200, with more than 100 in September alone, including in New York City, Boston and Chicago.
The causes of these strikes were similar in many cases to what we are witnessing today. In the 1960s and ’70s, teachers across the country fought hard for basic respect and for better conditions for their students through decent salaries, increased preparation time and lower class sizes.
Disinvestment in public education in many states since 2008 has led to conditions that look very much like the conditions under which teachers worked in the era before collective bargaining began in the 1960s. In those days, many teachers faced deplorable salaries, had limited due process rights and in some places could still be fired for getting pregnant.
Still, there is one crucial difference between the two eras of teacher strikes. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, more Americans could get decent jobs without a college degree and even without a high school degree. And back then, the percentage of workers in blue-collar jobs who were covered by union contracts was much higher. A much larger percentage of Americans without a college education could enjoy a living wage and look forward to retirement with dignity.
But globalization, deindustrialization and political pressure from the right against unionization has eroded these possibilities for many Americans. If there is anything on which Republicans and Democrats can find some agreement these days, it is the significance of education in ensuring American workers can develop the human capital to compete in a global marketplace.
Given the vital economic significance Americans have placed on education, teachers may be more powerful now than ever before. They cannot be outsourced, and neither free-trade deals geared toward corporate interests nor digital technology can render them obsolete. It’s quite possible that striking teachers across the country represent the beginning of a trend in which the ordinary people who keep our education system — and our economy — running realize just how much power they have.
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