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Published in Print: January 1, 2006, as Picket Fencing

Picket Fencing

Amid fewer strikes, some see waning sympathy for educators.

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Once as familiar in the back-to-school ritual as falling leaves, teacher strikes seem headed for a winter freeze. About 15 of the National Education Association’s 14,000 local affiliates have gone on strike since the start of this school year, according to the nation’s largest teachers’ union. That’s consistent with recent years, which have averaged between 10 and 15 affiliate strikes, according to NEA data.

“We don’t keep hard numbers, but we have definitely seen fewer strikes” recently, agrees John See, a spokesman for the American Federation

of Teachers, the second-largest national teachers’ union. By contrast, the 1980s witnessed dozens of strikes annually. What’s more, most of this year’s job actions have been in small districts and have typically settled fairly quickly.

For example, in Pennsylvania—a traditional union stronghold— educators in the 3,300-student Pottsgrove district sat out 10 days in September over salary and health insurance issues before settling. While they had to agree to start paying a small, though slowly growing, share of their health insurance premiums, the teachers, who earned an average of $59,500 last year, also won a 2 percent annual raise over and above their yearly 2 percent step increases.

Pay and benefit increases may be alienating parents and voters with little hope of either.

In another pro-union state, teachers from Illinois’ 1,300-student Chicago Ridge district sat out eight days this fall. They won continued free primary health insurance and a 21 percent raise over four years in exchange for a half-hour extension to their official six-hour-10-minute day.

“What I see is that educators are starting to stand up and say, ‘We’re worth professional pay,’ ” says Carolyn York, the NEA’s manager of collective bargaining and member advocacy.Districts, she adds, are “looking at what it takes to recruit and retain new teachers.”

But some analysts suggest that it’s just such pay and benefits that have alienated parents and other citizens who might once have supported teachers’ strikes. Organized labor has lost clout, they argue, because, among other factors, the overworked public has become impatient with educators’ demands for benefits that have become scarce at most private-sector jobs. The poverty-level wages and decline of employee entitlements at such vanguard companies as Wal-Mart can make educators’ working conditions look rosy by comparison, according to Scott Treibitz, president of Tricom Associates, an Arlington, Virginia-based communications and consulting firm that specializes in education and labor issues.

“People are saying, ‘Forget you, teachers; if I don’t have it, I don’t want you to have it,’ ” Treibitz says.“Instead of a race to the top, where we have all good benefits, there’s this race to the bottom.”

But teachers often work many hours not accounted for in their contracts, and Gail Purkey, a spokeswoman for the AFT-affiliated Illinois Federation of Teachers, cautions that seemingly fat raises may be long- coming compensation for years of frozen or cut salaries.

“Teachers in many cases in previous negotiations may have given up a portion of a raise to keep health care costs down,” she notes. “Health care costs are rising everywhere, and districts are trying to deal with double-digit increases.”

But Treibitz counters that with more mothers working outside the home—sometimes for significantly less money than teachers make—parents must scramble to come up with often-expensive child care for the duration of a strike. Such costs, he says, do not endear the public to the plight of teachers. So while striking educators may win enough concessions to keep off the picket lines for a while, there may not be much public good will to support them in the long run, he warns. “The power of the strike has been diminished.”

Vol. 17, Issue 04, Page 11

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