When Teachers Strike

Photo by Ben Sutherland

I am torn on teachers’ unions.

As a first year teacher in Connecticut, I resented being compelled to pay over $700 in yearly union dues, but within two years I was the building representative for our districts’ teaching association. Even as a rep, I still felt torn on two union mainstays: teacher tenure and the threat of strikes.

On reflection, I realize my distrust of unions stems from two things. First, teachers unions do sometimes defend pretty lackluster teaching. Frankly, I find that deplorable. Second, my knee-jerk response is to buy the anti-union rhetoric. I suspect the standard anti-union zingers resonate with many other Americans as well.

Yet, as I watch a contract dispute unfold in my state’s biggest public school district, it is clear that, though intuitively easy to buy into, the anti-union rhetoric is based on some seriously misguided perceptions of teachers’ work.

These misperceptions must be considered before any parent or community member can meaningfully comment on union activity.

Misguided Perceptions of Teaching

It doesn’t take much to find examples of wrong-headed beliefs about teaching. If you follow any headline story about teachers’ union activity, a quick scroll through the “comments” sections will yield some pretty consistent messaging.

  • Teachers’ salaries are already bloated. How dare they negotiate for raises?
  • Our district just negotiated a new contract. Why are teachers asking for more?
  • Teachers should be there for our children, and not there to “line their pockets.”
  • Teachers should only get raises if their students perform well.
  • The teachers’ union is threatening to strike when our children need them most. Why did the teachers wait until the eleventh hour to make this an issue?

And the most seriously misguided sentiment:

  • Teachers get several vacations throughout the school year. They have a two-month break over the summer, and work six hours a day. Part-time pay for part-time work is fair.

On first blush, it would be easy to buy into all of these popular sentiments. Though, all of them are mostly wrong.

An 8 o’clock to 2 o’clock workday? Yes, I’ll have what they’re having.

My suspicion is that most of the American public bases their understanding of the work of teachers on their experiences with teachers when they were children in school. Beyond this first hand experience with teachers, many Americans don’t think very hard about the true work of teaching unless they live with a teacher or they are one.

For example, if my students’ perceptions about what I did during the school day were true, I would be sleeping on a cot in the broom closet in my classroom, and my life would be sustained through a steady diet of apples and chalk dust.

Okay, that’s overstating it, but students were always shocked when they saw me eating real food in the cafeteria, and let’s not even mention what happened when they saw me in public. All this is to say students give little thought to what goes into teaching, especially when they are not sitting in a classroom.

I liken assumptions about “knowing what it means to teach” to going to your favorite restaurant, ordering your favorite dish and deciding – as you wait for then devour your meal – that you know what it means to be chef.

Clearly, when that dish is presented to you, you know very little about the ingredients, the preparation, the cook time, the training or the thought that went into that dish. The same can be said for students in a classroom. You are only consuming the finished product of teaching.

Teachers work much longer than six hours a day. Six hours a day is the amount of time teachers spend with your children. Six hours a day is the amount of time it takes for teachers to present their fully-cooked dishes to students.

The six-hours-a-day calculation leaves out the “cook time” that went into lesson planning, their assessment of students’ performance and feedback, the continuous training and professional development, the committee work and communication with parents. Let us also consider the constant preparation, clean-up and organization of materials that classroom teachers manage every day, all day. (Those lima beans didn’t count themselves into those twenty-five little plastic Dixie cups, kid!)

Teachers’ work day starts well before the school day begins (which is earlier and earlier every year). Teachers’ calendar year also starts well before the school year begins as teachers prepare the classroom for the school year, and they’re there well after the school year ends writing reports, debriefing and unpacking the school year, and making plans for the next one to come. That two-month summer vacation is something your children enjoy, not their teachers.

Work to Rule

Union activity doesn’t happen out of nowhere, either. There are many activities a union might engage in well before they resort to a strike. Before a teachers’ union strikes, they might call for a “work to rule.” In a nutshell, “work to rule” means that the teachers voice their grievances by refusing to work beyond the terms and conditions outlined by the previous contract.

This means teachers may be asked by the union not to return to the classroom earlier than they are required to set up for the school year. Teachers might be asked to be at the school and in the classroom the minimum required time of the school day. They will be asked to refrain from purchasing equipment for the classroom with their own money (about $500 per teacher amounting to billions of dollars a year across the nation). 

In other words, work to rule means the community gets what they’re paying for, which is far less than the bargain many communities usually get out of teachers.

For teachers who typically work far and above the terms of their contract, a work to rule order represents a significant change in their pre-school-year practice, and is emotionally difficult for many dedicated teachers. When you think of the things that these teachers are not doing to prepare for and serve their students, it is clear a work to rule order makes their workday much more difficult.

The truth is that it is hard to know how many teachers actually carry out the work to rule even if they say they will.

For example, that same school district that is now embroiled in the contract dispute I spoke of earlier has experienced work to rule orders before. During a work to rule order a few years back, the district changed busing companies to cut costs. As an outcome of serious mismanagement, the busing company failed to pickup children on time from school to be bussed home. Several teachers told me that they violated the work to rule order by waiting in their classroom with the children for the bus to come until after four o’clock pm.

You ask, “Yes, but what cruel and heartless teacher could leave a group of scared and abandoned 8-year-olds in the classroom unattended to comply with a work to rule order?”

The answer is very few if any of them.

So, a work to rule order in a district that is regularly mismanaging funds and contracting mediocre services for children isn’t a very effective tactic.

The Long and Winding Path of a Failed Teaching Contract

Teaches strike out of desperation when all other avenues have failed, but even then their efforts are often in vain. This is because teachers can’t win the media war when they’re out of their classrooms and picketing in the streets. When there is even the threat of such an activity, the anti-union rhetoric and false assumptions quickly kick in.

The irony as I see it is that the media glare focuses only on the teachers’ actions and spares not even a second to consider the role played by community leaders, like mayors, who may share responsibility for failed union contracts.

So, I’ll offer a bit here on the anatomy of contract negotiations, but with the caveat that my experience is limited.

Teachers typically negotiate a “master contract” with the municipality or the district every few years. This is known as collective bargaining and it happens again and again because, written in the terms of the contract is the contract’s own expiration date.

There are many people involved in contract negotiations including the mayor, the board of education, aldermen or local representatives as well as the teachers. The contract involves much more than annual salary. Rather, negotiations often focus on things like health insurance, retirement and minimum work safety standards.

These contract negotiations typically happen in the springtime for the upcoming fiscal year, and are usually settled in time for districts to predict staffing needs, post advertisements, and fill open positions by the late spring.

Contracts often reach a stalemate when any of these moving pieces or players gets hung up. Often it has nothing to do with teachers’ salary. Sometimes contract negotiations fail because of complex municipal spending and investment guidelines, like determining what percentage of healthcare costs the teachers will cover and what the municipality will cover.

Sometimes, a contract fails because teachers don’t want riders in their contracts that allow municipal governments to divest earnings from teachers’ pension plans to offset other costs in the district with a promise to replenish the pension funds at a later, indeterminate date (go figure).

To be honest, these are the types of nuts and bolts of contract negotiation that make my eyes glaze over, but it can never be said that these are trifling details.

In the largest district in New Hampshire, the contract dispute is a perfect storm involving an impoverished district, an impatient electorate and the reelection aspirations of the city’s mayor.

First, their budget timeline and decision making seems to happen three months later than other districts in New Hampshire. This results in critical contract questions being made late in the summer months. One summer, the last-minute budget shortfall led to the district firing 137 teachers (about a sixth of the teaching force) two weeks before the school year began. The results were chaotic, with children looking forward to meeting their assigned classroom teacher (who had been fired) and classrooms of over 30 children assigned to one teacher.

In the current contract dispute, 7 out of 10 members of the Board of Alderman and all elected Board of School Committee members supported the contract. Regardless, at the eleventh hour and with little warning the mayor vetoed the contract.

In a complete denial of his role in the contract negotiation breakdown and his role as leader of the city and the Board of School Committeethe Mayor called on the teachersto iron out” the details of a new contract. Meanwhile, it should be noted the mayor is up for reelection on September 15th, and many citizens turn the other cheek while the mayor distances himself from the contract negotiation failure and focus instead on his claims of fiscal responsibility.

Questions to Ask when Teachers Strike

While I’m still torn about unions, including some of their goals and their tactics, and while the research on unions is far from a consensus, it’s clear to me that these contests raise more questions than community members and parents are often willing to ask.

As with everything in education politics the story is much more complex than the headline.

Work strikes seem to me like an outdated tactic that yields only negative and unintended consequences. Meanwhile, teachers themselves have difficulty following through with a work to rule. Teachers don’t seem to have a winning strategy or tactics. This is especially true when teachers are hung out to dry for political gain. In this case teachers are being blamed for mismanaging city revenue and being asked to find a solution on their own.

Who wants to be a teacher, kids?! Can I get a show of hands?

When teachers threaten to engage in union activity, rather than spinning out the same wrongheaded one-liners, community members and parents might question where their city leadership went wrong.

  • How long have negotiations been going on?
  • Where are the sticking points in the negotiation?
  • What does the school board say?
  • What does the superintendent of schools in the district say?
  • How are teachers being treated in my community’s schools?

Most importantly, they might ask what role their community’s elected officials have played in the stalemate, and what those same political leaders stand to gain from selling the teachers in their district down the river.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s