Teachers on Strike Fewer This Year As Schools Open

By Cindy Currence — September 12, 1984 6 min read

Judging by the low number of teacher strikes in progress last week, union representatives and school officials across the nation are predicting a relatively quiet year with fewer teacher strikes.

Last week, there were strikes in nine states, involving about 8,000 teachers and about 145,000 students, according to teacher-union representatives.

The bulk of the strike activity, according to the National Education Association, has been in Michigan and Illinois, but last week teachers also were on strike in four Pennsylvania school districts; in Clinton and Somerville, N.J.; in Selma, Ind.; in Longview, Wash.; in the Exeter-West Greenwich school district in Rhode Island; and at two Catholic schools in Louisiana and New York City.

And although teachers reported for duty in Chicago and San Francisco as scheduled last week, union and school officials worked to avert threatened strikes that would affect nearly half a million students.

“Strikes have been going down in the last few years and we anticipate no significant increase in strike activity this year,” said John E. Dunlop, manager of negotiations for the nea

School and union officials attributed the decline to the nation’s economic recovery, the influence of the school-reform movement, and maturing labor relations between unions and school boards.

Activity in Michigan

Michigan, where strike activity is typically heavy, has experienced less than half as many strikes so far as in the same period last year and the lowest number in more than a decade, according to Robert Marshall, director of field services for the Michigan Education Association.

The number of unsettled contracts also is down this year, Mr. Marshall reported. Last year during the week following Labor Day, about 300 of the locals’ contracts were not settled in Michigan and teachers in 47 districts were on strike; this year, 185 contracts are still not settled and there have been 11 strikes, two of which were settled last week, he said.

As of last week, more than 2,700 Michigan teachers in school districts in Anchor Bay, Gull Lake, Atherton, Cassopolis, River Rouge, Bronson, Grand Rapids, East China, and Escanaba were on strike. Strikes in Saginaw and Gladstone were settled early last week.

Mr. Marshall attributes the decline in the number of strikes in Michigan, where “virtually 100 percent” of the school districts are3unionized, to the “rebound of the economy.” The economic recovery allowed the state legislature to appropriate more funding for education during the 1984-85 school year, making negotiations for increased teacher salaries much easier, Mr. Marshall said.

Impact of Reform Movement

Mr. Marshall and other union leaders also said that the reform movement has helped decrease the number of strikes this year.

“All the national attention and public support has made it possible for the Governor and the legislators to put their money where their beliefs are,” Mr. Marshall said.

In Pennsylvania, where union and education officals also are expecting little strike activity this fall, extra funds from the state have helped avert strikes, said Frank Sullivan, staff representative of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers.

According to Dorsey E. Enck, director of management services for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, the decreased number of strikes may also be “a result of the public’s hostility toward teacher strikes as a tactic and the legislature’s recent interest in revising the [state’s collective-bargaining law] and perhaps modifying the limited right to strike.”

As of last week, about 870 teachers in Pennsylvania’s Wissahickon, South Fayette, Tulpehocken, and New Castle school districts were on strike. Last school year, teachers in 17 public-school districts in the state went out on strike, and 37 public-school districts experienced strikes during the 1982-83 school year.

Illinois Labor Law

Illinois, the only state in which more strikes are anticipated this year than last, had teachers in nine school districts on strike last week, according to nea officials.

The number of strikes there is attributable to the state’s new collective-bargaining law for teachers, said Mr. Dunlop of the nea

“For many years, Illinois teachers were involved in ad hoc bargaining,” he said, and this year, “they are testing the new law--both employers and employees.”

The law, enacted by the legislature in 1983, now requires school boards to recognize teachers’ appointed representatives and requires the district administration to enter into contract negotiations with that representative. Outside Chicago, most teachers in Illinois are represented by nea affiliates.

The law also created a state labor-relations board for education that appoints mediators when contract negotiations break down and monitors compliance with the collective-bargaining and strike procedures required under the new law.

Because the law has opened collective bargaining to all locals, the nea is negotiating “two-and-a-half times” as many contracts as it did last year, according to Penny Strong, press secretary for the Illinois Education Association. Nearly 400 of the nea’s 600 contracts for this year have not been settled, she said.

About 3,300 teachers in Rockford, Bremen, Sycamore, Urbana, Kildeer-Countryside, Granite City, and Bethalto school districts were out on strike last week. Strikes in the LaSalle-Peru and North Boone school districts were settled last week.

Money and Reforms

This fall, as in other years, con-tract disputes have centered on salary levels, working conditions, and benefits, Mr. Dunlop said.

In Illinois, for example, “Money is an issue in every single strike,” said Ms. Strong. “In some of them there are other issues, such as class size and extra duty, but by and large the issue is money.”

Administrators also are beginning to see issues raised last year by the National Commission on Excellence in Education discussed at the bargaining table, said August W. Steinhilber, associate executive director of the National School Boards Association’s collective-bargaining office.

A contract ratified by the nea affiliate in Minnetonka, Minn., last fall included provisions for increasing the length of the school year, devising differential-pay schemes, and requiring teachers to confer more frequently with parents, he noted.

The additional educational funds provided by many state and local governments recently have helped alleviate contract disputes, Mr. Steinhilber said, but in states where additional funding has not been forthcoming, the reform movement actually may create contract problems, he speculated.

“The problem is that if you talk about the reform movement at the collective-bargaining table, the school system has to ask, ‘How are we going to pay for everything?”’

Improved Labor Relations

Union and management representatives agree that another factor in the decrease in labor disputes is “maturing labor relations.”

“People are beginning to look at collective bargaining as a cooperat-ive procedure rather than as an adversarial one,” said Deborah Fallin, director of communications at the Colorado Education Association.

Colorado has not had a strike in four years, Ms. Fallin said, in part because school employers and employees are working at “win-win” bargaining. “They’re looking at things for the good of the school district, as opposed to the school board fighting the teachers,” she said.

“I think that there clearly has been a maturing in the labor-relations process,” Mr. Dunlop said. “Both parties have come to understand how they can manage their own conflicts.”

“What we don’t see anymore, which we did in the mid-1970’s, is teachers deprived of their jobs for going on strike. We’ve learned that you don’t solve your problem by simply firing all the teachers,” he said.

As school officials and teachers have become more familiar with the collective-bargaining process, they have opted for more two- and three-year contracts, reducing the number of contracts that are settled each year and thus reducing conflict, Mr. Marshall added.

A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 1984 edition of Education Week as Teachers on Strike Fewer This Year As Schools Open