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Teacher Strikes Limited to a Few Small Districts

By Joetta L. Sack — November 08, 2005 4 min read

Falloff in walkouts viewed as linked to broader loss of clout among labor unions

Once a fairly common occurrence in the back-to-school scene, teacher strikes have fallen off this fall, continuing a recent trend.

Only about a dozen of the National Education Association’s 14,000 locals have gone on strike since the start of this school year, according to the nation’s largest teachers’ union. In recent years, only about 10 to 15 affiliates have gone on strike, NEA data say.

The other national teachers’ union paints a similar picture.

“We don’t keep hard numbers, but we have definitely seen fewer strikes this year,” said John See, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers. “The number is so small, it’s hard to get even common themes.”

A handful of strikes, mainly in small districts, took place this fall, compared with dozens annually in the 1980s. Some analysts say that organized labor has lost clout, and the public has become less sympathetic to union causes.

“The power of the strike has been diminished,” said Scott Treibitz, the president of the Arlington, Va.-based communications and consulting firm Tricom Associates, which specializes in labor issues.

Mr. Treibitz also believes that parents and community members are less responsive to walkouts than they were in years past. One possible reason is that more mothers work outside the home, and so strikes have more impact on families than in past decades, he said, because they require more parents to scramble to come up with child care.

He said another reason could be linked to the decline of benefits in the private sector, a cultural shift he attributes to such vanguard companies as the retail giant Wal-Mart, and perceptions in some places that teachers have above-average salaries and benefits.

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

For those districts that have confronted labor action so far this school year, the walkouts had a significant effect on students and often divided communities. Districts in Illinois and Pennsylvania, which are considered union strongholds, saw the most activity. No large districts faced significant threats of strikes, though.

Health-care and other benefits remained the dominant issues in many of the strikes, continuing a trends from recent years. Many districts sought to cut benefits or require teachers to pay more as increases in health-insurance premiums persists.

“Health-care costs are rising everywhere, and districts are trying to deal with double-digit increases in health-care costs,” said Gail Purkey, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the AFT. “Teachers in many cases in previous negotiations may have given up a portion of a raise to keep health-care costs down.”

Now, after several years of near-stagnant state and district budgets across the country, teachers are hoping for salary increases to help mitigate those expenses, she added.

“What I see is that educators are starting to stand up and say we’re worth professional pay,” said Carolyn York, the manager of collective bargaining and compensation for the NEA. “They’re looking at what it takes to recruit and retain new teachers.”

NCLB Concerns

Across the country, teachers in several districts organized picket lines after contract negotiations faltered.

Along with the typical demands—better pay, caps on health-care contributions, and improved workday schedules—teachers from the 2,400-student Oregon Trail district in Sandy, Ore., want protection from the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. They say they are particularly concerned about the NCLB requirements that could affect their job stability, such as being forced to transfer to new schools because of factors beyond their control, as well as a host of issues related to salary, leave time, and benefits. The strike, which began Oct. 25 and had shut down schools at least through late last week, was considered a first-of-a-kind in demanding relief from provisions of the federal law.

In Illinois, teachers in the 1,300-student Chicago Ridge district went on strike Oct. 24 after rejecting a contract that would have given them raises of 6 percent the first year and 5 percent each of the next three, in exchange for their agreement to extend the workday by 30 minutes and to pay part of their health-insurance costs. The strike was not yet resolved as of late last week.

Meanwhile, teachers in the 1,400-student Farmington, Ill., district quickly settled a contract dealing with similar issues after a weeklong strike in September.

Several of Pennsylvania’s 502 districts saw strikes this fall. Teachers in the 3,300-student Pottsgrove district sat out 10 days in September over salary and health insurance, while their counterparts in the 2,700-student Punxsutawney district ended a 12-day strike that month after agreeing to nonbinding arbitration.

And teachers in the 3,000-student Crestwood district in Mountaintop, Pa., went on strike for 18 days this fall after 3½ years of negotiations—the state’s longest ongoing school contract dispute. As of last week, teachers had gone back to work, but the issues had not yet been resolved.

Teachers in the 2,300-student Colchester, Vt., district went on strike last month for eight days, their second walkout in 2005.

The school board later approved a budget that kept current health-care benefits and contributions and gave teachers an average 3.5 percent raise for each of the next three years.

A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Teacher Strikes Limited to a Few Small Districts

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