Teaching Profession

Labor Unrest Shuts Schools in Midwest

By Vaishali Honawar — September 01, 2006 6 min read
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The new school year has brought with it a fresh wave of labor unrest, as teachers in districts large and small went back to school without new contracts and thousands took to the picket lines.

Teachers in Detroit were on strike late this week, with talks between union leaders and district officials continuing. In Gary, Ind., union and school officials announced a tentative agreement on Aug. 31 to settle an 11-day strike.

For Detroit, the strike comes at a particularly difficult time. Enrollment there has been plummeting, and the district is trying to dig itself out of a $200 million budget hole. The district was expected to start the new school year Sept. 5 with 119,000 students, down 40 percent from the late 1990s.

Around 35 schools have been shut down or relocated to other campuses since the end of the 2004-05 school year. (“Detroit Schools Struggle to Stem Student Loss,” July 12, 2006.)

Union and school leaders in Detroit continued court-ordered, round-the-clock negotiations Sept. 1, and district officials vowed to open schools on schedule. Superintendent William F. Coleman said in a statement this week the district would make a decision on strike-related layoffs by Sept. 6. The strike began Aug. 28.

Teachers in the city want a 5 percent raise for the next three years, but the district wants them to take a 5.5 percent cut and pick up increased insurance costs.

Lekan Oguntoyimbo, a spokes-man for the school system, said all district employees have been asked to take a pay cut to close the gap in a total budget of $1.4 billion. “We don’t have a choice,” he said. “Financially, our backs are against the wall.”

Teachers not reporting for work once school opens would lose pay for the days missed, and their union would have to pay a fine of $5,000 for each day the strike continued, Mr. Oguntoyimbo said.

Rising Premiums

But Jewell Gould, the director of research for the American Federation of Teachers, the parent organization of the 9,500-member Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers have made several concessions over the past few years, including accepting a pay freeze, loaning workdays to the district, and reducing sick-leave days. The district, in contrast, gave bonuses to administrators last December, Mr. Gould said—an action that surprised teachers even more, he added, when school officials demanded further concessions.

Union officials who track teacher protests say labor rumblings are common at the beginning of a school year because contracts often have expired at the end of the preceding year, and labor and management haven’t been able to reach an agreement over the summer.

Ohio: Brian Loges, an art teacher at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, pickets outside the school Aug 25.

While the protests are not more extensive this year than in recent years, they are more visible because of the strikes in the larger districts such as Detroit, said Mr. Gould.

Teachers in other large districts, including the 58,000-student Boston public schools, have had to return to school before contract negotiations were completed, according to the AFT. Others, such as those in the Pittsburgh and Toledo, Ohio, districts, have not seen wage increases in a while. In Philadelphia, meanwhile, teachers are suing the district for seeking wage cuts.

“It is very tough going around the country,” Mr. Gould said, citing rising health-care premiums in particular.

Outside observers agree that health-care costs are making collective bargaining agreements more difficult to hammer out. Myron Lieberman, a union critic and the chairman of the Washington-based Education Policy Institute, a research and advocacy group, agreed that healthcare costs have risen, but added that the increases for teachers are no bigger than in the private sector, where employees have been asked to pay more. “If you look at the figures, the teachers have got a better deal than private-sector workers, and they’re striking to hang on to it,” he said.

In at least two of the districts where teachers were striking this week, Gary and Huber Heights, Ohio, higher insurance premiums were a point of friction.

In the 6,800-student Huber Heights district, 500 teachers and support-staff members reached a tentative agreement Aug. 31 after a weeklong strike. And in Missouri’s 900-student Wolf Branch district, near St. Louis, 50 teachers returned to work this week after a six-day walkout.

Huber Heights Superintendent William Kirby said health-insurance costs for the district will increase by more than 11 percent this year. Teachers were offered a 3 percent raise for two years, with some increased insurance costs.

“Health insurance is an unpredictable, uncontrollable risk for all school districts,” Mr. Kirby said. “We have to spread the cost.”

Rising costs and deep budget deficits over the past few years that have tied the ability of districts to raise teacher salaries are often blamed for triggering strikes, but the issues can vary.

Debra Owens, a spokeswoman for the Huber Heights Education Association, said teachers also wanted a reduction in class sizes and stricter action against violent acts by students.

Indiana: Mary Steele, the Gary Schools superintendent, said she worried the strike would hurt enrollment.

In Indiana, the Gary district had offered the 1,000 striking teachers a 2 percent pay raise for three consecutive years—2005, 2006, and 2007—but also asked them to pick up 10 percent of their health-insurance tab instead of 7 percent.

Superintendent Mary Steele this week sent out a letter to Gary teachers that warned them of the legal consequences of not returning to the classroom, including the possibility of being laid off.

Ms. Steele said she was worried about the effects of the strike on the 16,000-student district, where enrollment has already been declining. The strike, she said, could cause more students to leave. “I trust that [enrollment] has not taken a great hit, but we don’t know,” she said.

The district and the Gary Teachers Union announced teachers would vote on a tentative agreement on Sept. 1 to end the strike.

Classes at city schools had been canceled since Aug. 24. The strike began Aug. 21; two days later, the school year started.

Alternatives to Money

Strikes by public employees are illegal in 24 states. Twelve of those states, including Indiana and Michigan, have penalties for walkouts that range from fines to dismissal to imprisonment, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Nine states still permit strikes by public workers, but lawmakers in at least one, Pennsylvania, have introduced bills to make them illegal. A spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Teachers Association, Wythe Keever, said that of 185 school districts where contracts expired earlier this year, 120 had not reached an agreement before the opening of the 2006-07 school year.

Union officials say the ability to strike is an important tool for teachers when districts seek to cut into salaries and benefits.

“To try to take away the ability to strike is not what we would like to see,” said Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association. “But even more significant and more important is to have negotiations completed.”

He said districts could offer teachers better working conditions and such incentives as more relief time, professional-development opportunities, and credit for taking courses.

“If there’s not enough money, there could be other things you can put on the table,” Mr. Weaver said. To satisfy both district and teachers, he said, “people can come up with creative ideas.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as Labor Unrest Shuts Schools In Midwest

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