School & District Management

Why School Workers Are Going on Strike—And What It Means for Districts

By Mark Lieberman — March 14, 2023 7 min read
Bus drivers picket outside the bus barn in Wasilla, Alaska on Jan. 26, 2023. Bus drivers in Alaska’s second-largest school district went on strike after delivering students to classes on Tuesday, Jan. 31, citing unfair labor practices.
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School workers located everywhere from the nation’s second-largest school district to a small Midwestern city have a common message to share: Their jobs are getting harder, salaries and benefits aren’t keeping up with the cost of living, and something needs to change.

During the early days of the pandemic, cafeteria worker Sara Rapp and a handful of her colleagues trekked to Hastings High School, assembled hundreds of lunches, and then jumped in school buses and rode the routes to make sure the Minnesota school’s roughly 1,300 students, and many of their families, got enough to eat.

Three years later, Rapp and close to three dozen of her cafeteria colleagues districtwide have been on strike for more than a month, since Feb. 7. Their demands, including higher pay and cheaper health insurance options, boil down to a call for respect they feel they’re not getting.

“It doesn’t feel like they care about us,” Rapp said of district leadership. “They don’t appreciate what they have in their staff.”

The nation saw more strike activity last year than in 2021, and workers at K-12 schools and higher education institutions accounted for more than 60 percent of striking workers, according to the Labor Action Tracker report from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. At least 40 K-12 districts saw strikes or walkouts last year, with most concerning teachers or bus drivers.

While comprehensive national data on strikes are virtually nonexistent, strike activity in the education sector appears to be holding steady in the first few months of 2023, with seven strikes in K-12 school districts during the year’s still-ongoing first quarter, according to the tracker.

And even more significant work stoppages could be on the horizon: More than 30,000 cafeteria workers, bus drivers, instructional aides, special education workers, and other support staff for the Los Angeles school district—the nation’s second largest—are poised to strike for three days sometime this month if they can’t reach an agreement with district leaders over demands for pay increases of more than 30 percent for the district’s lowest-paid workers, represented by a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union.

The district’s 35,000-member teachers’ union is urging its own members to join. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Tuesday that school would likely shut down for the district’s 430,000 students if the strike comes to pass.

These work stoppages follow the surge of K-12 labor activism that accompanied the statewide teacher walkouts during the #RedForEd movement in 2018.

The current strain of strikes tends to stem from challenges that have been plaguing districts throughout the pandemic: persistent staff shortages and hiring challenges; funding and resource constraints brought on by inflation; and increasing disillusionment with the nature of difficult jobs that often pay comparably to retail jobs.

“While strikes are often over money, we live in a society where the money that you get paid is intimately tied to how you feel you’re being seen,” said Peter Rachleff, an emeritus professor of labor history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn, and co-founder of the nonprofit East Side Freedom Library there. “To feel that they’re not being seen as contributing worth to the overall project of education, it becomes personal.”

Why school workers—and not just teachers—walk off the job

In most states, public-sector workers, including in schools, are legally prohibited from going on strike, though some do anyway.

Districts should view employees’ willingness to strike as a last resort, said Melissa Lyon, an assistant professor of public administration and policy at the University at Albany who has extensively studied K-12 strikes of the last 15 years.

“If you’re weighing the choice to go on strike with something else, you’re probably going to end up doing something else,” Lyon said. “Teachers are only going to be willing to mobilize if they get to a point where they’re really desperate.”

Teacher strikes often get the bulk of media attention. But support workers in K-12 schools have also used the approach to call attention to the challenges they face, including median pay nationwide below $30,000, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A strike in the Woburn, Mass., schools in January led to a 40 percent pay increase for paraprofessionals over the next four years. School workers including custodians, secretaries, and instructional aides in Morgan County, Ohio, went on strike for more than a week this month to protest low wages.

And bus drivers in at least 29 districts across 18 states have gone on strike since the pandemic began, according to an Education Week analysis of local media reports. Drivers for the bus company that contracts with Alaska’s second largest school district recently concluded a strike that lasted more than a month.

For the Hastings cafeteria workers, the job has never been easy.

Rapp has had to take second jobs in retail to make ends meet, working until 10:30 p.m. and then arriving for the next school day at 6:45 a.m.

As a single mother who doesn’t have a year-round contract with the district, the only health insurance package available to her is one she described as prohibitively expensive that’s designed for families with numerous children, she said.

The pandemic made her work harder, Rapp said. The hours got longer. She got paid less for lunches she made for students during the summer, a new pandemic-era responsibility, because her labor contract only covers the nine months of the school year.

People started retiring early or quitting for more lucrative jobs, but their positions weren’t filled, leaving more work for those who remained. Rapp said her team needs nine people to function effectively, but currently only has six.

“The people I work with, we’re like a family. We all just became so close [during the pandemic],” Rapp said. “There’s a lot of us ready to quit if something doesn’t happen.”

The district’s superintendent, Robert McDowell didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. His office shared with the Hastings Journal, a local newspaper, an extensive response to the union’s concerns, arguing that the district’s most recent offer during negotiations was more generous than union members have said, and pointing out that many union members will see their pay increase in the coming years as they move up the district’s step ladder system.

“The district’s last, best and final offer is based on what other district employee groups have accepted during recent negotiations and data the district has collected in terms of what neighboring school districts pay similar positions,” McDowell wrote.

Districts often struggle to respond

Teachers in Arizona, West Virginia, North Carolina, and elsewhere won widespread media attention and significant salary increases after walking out of classrooms en masse in 2018.

Since then, experts say, demands from educators and school service workers have increasingly focused on connections between benefits for themselves and support for students.

“I imagine that the cafeteria workers see hungry kids, bedraggled kids, kids who are depressed, and really do feel a connection to them,” Rachleff said.

The same goes for bus drivers and other workers whose jobs are intimately connected to students’ daily experiences.

The vast majority of school district budgets goes toward salaries and benefits for employees. If state and local funding doesn’t keep up with inflation and other rising fixed costs, districts can struggle to balance compensating employees and maintaining high-quality instruction.

Lyon said her forthcoming research shows that strikes often lead to substantial increases in districts’ per-pupil spending in the years immediately following the labor action. But districts often don’t maintain that level of spending as the cost of salaries and benefits continues to rise, she said. That could mean they cut expenses elsewhere, or reduce labor costs by eliminating positions through attrition or layoffs.

“Some districts might have legitimate claims to say, ‘If we raise our property taxes any more, people are just going to leave,’” Lyon said. “Many of those are a product of how our country has chosen to finance our education system.”

Many workers like Rapp who choose to stay in their jobs and strike for better working conditions are willing to accept the challenges and constraints of working in schools if it means helping students.

“We care about the kids,” Rapp said. “It’s fulfilling, it’s rewarding that you’re doing something good for people.”

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