Should Teachers Have the Right to Strike? A Look at West Virginia and the Twin Cities.

The teachers “walkout” or strike in West Virginia has been in the news for the last two weeks. The teachers and the state just settled the dispute with a 5% increase in pay and a promise to look at steeply rising health care costs in the wake of Obamacare. West Virginia, a poor state, is known for low teacher compensation.

One of the reasons the walkout lasted so long was that legislators were not willing to increase spending until they could offset the costs; they paid for the increase by finding savings elsewhere in the state budget. That seems fiscally responsible and best for teachers. After all, teachers are taxpayers, too.

Another reason the walk-out lasted so long, though not reported much, is that the teachers were getting full pay and benefits; the days were treated like snow days, and will be made up at the end of the year.

West Virginia just became a “right to work” state in 2017. That means that teachers do not have to join the union or pay fair share fees to keep their jobs. I am not sure how this played a role—or not. Mike Antonucci, a respected expert on government unions, said this:

Where this specifically comes into play for the walkout is that — by my calculation — no more than half the public school employees in the state actually belong to any of the three unions. Nonmember support, or apathy, about the unions’ campaign is critical to its success or failure.

I have no idea how union members versus non-union members felt about the action; that would interesting to find out. But this new right to work state, which has had a huge drop in union membership, seemed to do well by teachers. The “strike” in West Virginia was illegal but it certainly got the attention of the Republican majority in the legislature and governor.

Contrast West Virginia with the recently threatened strikes in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where teachers must pay dues or fair share fees to the union to keep their jobs. (In fact, teachers and support professionals paid Education Minnesota $57 million in dues and fees last year.) In Minnesota, teacher strikes, under certain conditions, have been legal since 1973.

In St. Paul, where MinnPost says teachers are the highest paid in the state, the unions demanded a 2.5% raise but got a 1% increase in pay while other issues like class size and so-called “restorative justice” funding were laid aside. The district, with a $17 million deficit, said it just did not have any money. (You can read more details in the Pioneer Press.)

Demonstrators hold signs during a rally in support of the St. Paul School Teachers in their contract negotiations with the District at the administration offices in St. Paul on Sunday, Feb, 11, 2018. Over a one hundred teachers and their supporters showed up to the rally. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

The negotiations in Minneapolis, where the unions are demanding a 5% increase in pay and other spending, have moved into private mediation sessions. But there are very public rallies being conducted by the local Minneapolis Federation of Teachers around the district called “MFT59.”

Here’s the Minneapolis schools position on the threatened strike:

MPS cannot in good conscience agree to MFT’s more than $160 million in contract proposals when facing a projected $33 million budget deficit that will already result in layoffs. We must balance the need to deepen MPS investments with the need to balance our budget, nearly 90% of which pays the salaries of its almost 7,000 employees. MPS remains committed to coming to a financially responsible agreement that supports our teachers and the best interest of students.

MinnPost did a good article on the conundrum facing Minneapolis schools, which is going to ask taxpayers to vote for a spending referendum. The article pointed out that there are union members sitting as elected officials on the school board now; so they are literally on both sides of the bargaining table. How does that look to taxpayers?

Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of allowing public employees to legally strike. If a strike is legal, it means teachers cannot be fired for striking. If strikes are illegal, as we saw in West Virginia, it does not mean that teachers cannot strike. The chances of being fired are close to zero, whether the state is right to work or not.

If strikes are legal in a forced-dues state like Minnesota, how does that impact the budgets of school districts? Especially when union members, past and present, are sitting on the school board, serving in the legislature and on pension boards.

The question regarding teaching professionals, with an emphasis on their professionalism, makes it a tough one. Are teachers more like doctors and lawyers? Or are they more like factory workers? What do teachers aspire to be?

Maybe a better question is, what policy best serves the purpose of educating children?

I found a great website with the pros and cons laid out here. What do you think?

[Photo from Pioneer Press]