More than 30,000 school workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District are poised to strike for three days next week, and roughly 35,000 teachers and other workers in another union have vowed to join them. That action would shut down schools for the district’s more than 400,000 students.
But millions of public school employees elsewhere in the country are legally prohibited from doing the same.
Labor unions, including the ones that represent teachers and others who work in schools, use strikes or work stoppages to draw attention to working conditions they believe are untenable. In Los Angeles Unified, cafeteria workers, instructional aides, custodians, and other school workers are demanding a 30 percent pay raise, arguing that their average annual salary of $25,000 is woefully insufficient.
But in 37 states, what the Los Angeles employees plan to do would be illegal, due to laws that ban public sector strikes. Penalties for breaking these laws include fines, termination, and even jail time.
Education researcher Melissa Arnold Lyon has compiled a list of states prohibiting public employee strikes, drawing on federal and state sources and existing research. The list includes some states with a history of political and popular support for labor.
These state laws don’t always prevent strikes from taking place.
In 2021, more than a dozen bus drivers in the Greenville, Miss., schools stopped working for two days to argue for pay raises, even though state law has explicitly banned school workers from striking in the state since 1985. Lawmakers enacted that measure after nearly 10,000 teachers defied a court order and went on strike earlier that year; some strikers even briefly landed in jail.
In 2018, thousands of West Virginia teachers walked out to demand higher wages even though the state prohibits public employee strikes. That burst of activism helped spur the “Red for Ed” movement, inspiring labor actions among teachers in other states.
Most workers see strikes as an undesirable last resort after they fail to make progress with other forms of negotiating. But some want the option they don’t currently have. Lawmakers in at least one state, Massachusetts, are currently considering a bill that would loosen the ban on K-12 school strikes. Teachers in at least five districts there have gone on strike in the last year.
Strikes have taken in place in at least six K-12 school districts this year, including three in states where strikes are illegal, according to the Labor Action Tracker from the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. In Hastings, Minn., 35 school cafeteria workers have been on strike for nearly a month and a half.