Teachers in Chicago Public Schools returned to work last week, which will no doubt lead to lots of analyses by “really smart people” who know better how to run our schools than the teachers.
Most thoughtful analysis that I’ve read so far supports the idea that the strike was a tie between the Chicago Teachers Union and the nation’s third-largest school district.
This has also led many people to ask whether teachers’ strikes should be allowed at all. For example, a Chicago Tribune editorial called on Illinois’s legislature to make teachers’ strikes illegal, arguing “that the law needs to be improved. Most states bar teachers strikes. Illinois needs to join the crowd.”
We can confirm that the Tribune’s assertion that most states bar teachers from striking is correct. Most state legislatures have recognized the fact that teachers provide an essential service on behalf of the state government, like police and firefighters.
States where teachers’ unions can legally call strikes
Some exceptions to the rule
In Maryland, teachers are allowed to strike on their own. This is extremely rare, however, because unions can’t authorize a strike. Occasionally, we know teachers’ unions in Maryland have instituted “work to rule” conditions for teachers, where they work from the start of school to the final bell but provide no other services for students. Before unions were prohibited from authorizing strikes, Baltimore teachers went on strike for a month in 1974, primarily over class sizes and working conditions. City officials pretended schools were still open so as not to lose funding, according to a report in the Baltimore Sun.
In the state of Washington, teachers don’t face any legal action if they decide to strike, but their jobs aren’t protected during a strike. That is, they can be fired, making a “strike” little more than job abandonment.
Striking by teachers is completely illegal in 37 states
Whoever won the Chicago teachers’ strike, however you analyze it, one thing we know: students lost—they lost hours and seven days of instruction, they lost confidence in the public schools to provide a safe environment, conducive to learning, and especially for young students, they lost the excitement of a new school year.
Strikes have not been very common, even in the 13 states where strikes by teachers don’t violate the law. One exception has been Pennsylvania, where teachers’ strikes have occurred at least 740 times since 1968.
But when they happen, they hurt kids. We recall a disastrous strike in Rockford, Ill., in 1984, just two years after unemployment there was the highest in the nation, at 25 percent. The strike lasted four weeks and brought catastrophe to the school year. See the reference in the Rockford Register-Star, here.
The known damage done to kids has led legislatures in most states to bar teachers’ strikes. Judging from the Tribune’s language — “The academic damage done to the children of Chicago has been unconscionable,” the Tribune wrote, a level of damage that is yet unproven and highly speculative — kids have been badly harmed by the seven days lost at school.
I think kids tend to be more resilient than editors of the Tribune give them credit for with the editors’ lazy and fear-inspiring word choice, but I don’t want such a strike to occur again either. We have to join with the voices of the Tribune and ask that the General Assembly reconsider this law in the coming session.