In most of the country, it’s relatively rare for teachers to walk out of the classroom in protest—but when it does happen, a strike can have significant consequences.
Teacher strikes are an organized refusal to work that can cause public schools to close indefinitely. They typically happen when the negotiated contract between a local teachers’ union and the school district has expired, and the two sides are unable to come to terms on a new one during the collective bargaining process.
They’re usually viewed as a last resort, given the disruption to the lives of students and families. But teachers have secured some major victories through strikes, while largely maintaining public support.
Thousands of teachers are currently threatening strikes in Portland, Ore., and Fresno, Calif. In 2023, teachers have walked out in Clark County, Nev., Oakland, Calif., and Los Angeles, as well as in many other smaller districts, though the aims and mechanics of those walkouts differed.
Read on for an overview about strikes: common issues at stake, legality, the typical length, and more.
What are teacher strikes typically about?
Teacher strikes have historically been about bread-and-butter issues: higher wages and better working conditions. During the 2018 statewide walkouts that became known as the Red for Ed movement, teachers fought for more school funding from their state legislatures.
In recent years, some strikes have begun to encompass sweeping social issues. More and more, big-city teachers’ unions are engaging in what they call bargaining for the common good, bringing issues from air conditioning in schools to housing assistance for families to the bargaining table.
The 2012 Chicago teacher strike was a seminal event for this type of bargaining, with teachers demanding the hiring of more nurses and social workers. In 2019, teachers in the Windy City walked out again, this time with social justice demands that included affordable housing for students and staff.
Also in 2019, Los Angeles Unified teachers fought for—and secured—more community schools, the elimination of random searches of students, and legal support for students and families facing immigration-related concerns. And this year, Oakland teachers successfully went on strike for several social issues, including the creation of a reparations task force, which will focus on providing wraparound services to schools in which 40 percent or more of the students are Black.
Where can teachers strike?
In 37 states and Washington, D.C., it is illegal for teachers to go on strike. Penalties for breaking the law include fines, termination, license suspensions, and even jail time.
But these laws don’t always prevent strikes from taking place. Notably, West Virginia teachers have walked out en masse several times, most recently in 2019, even though the state prohibits public employee strikes.
“If the teachers have solidarity and public support, it’s going to be difficult to punish them in any real sense,” said Jon Shelton, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay and the author of Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order.
There have been some efforts to overturn strike prohibitions. The Clark County Education Association, for example, filed a lawsuit in October arguing that Nevada’s anti-strike statute is unconstitutional and infringes on members’ First Amendment rights.
How common are teacher strikes?
Teacher strikes are fairly rare. They were much more frequent in the mid- to late 20th century, with some years recording hundreds of strikes. (That parallels the time period during which many states passed public-sector bargaining laws and local teachers’ unions began expanding.) These days, strikes are much less common: An EdWeek analysis found there were just three strikes in 2011, for example, and 24 in 2018 at the height of the Red for Ed movement.
Pennsylvania is known to have more strikes than other states, possibly a function of state law, which allows teachers to strike twice in a school year. The EdWeek analysis found that, on four occasions between 2010 and 2018, the same local Pennsylvania teachers’ union struck twice in the same school year.
Strike activity ticked up across the nation in 2022, including in the education sector, possibly due to workers gaining power in the post-pandemic economy. Some experts say that trend might continue—especially as inflation hits teachers’ wallets.
“I think in general, we’re seeing teachers more willing to go on strike,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University. “The decisions that teachers are making reflect that they really know strikes work.”
How long do teacher strikes usually last? What was the longest school strike?
Teacher strikes can last anywhere from one day to several weeks.
The longest school strike took place in Homer, Ill. Teachers there went on strike on Oct. 17, 1986, and did not reach an agreement until June 23, 1987—a total of 156 school days, nearly the entire school year. The school district kept schools open by hiring substitute teachers, but learning was so disrupted that some families moved away or paid tuition for their children to attend other schools, according to reporting by the Champaign News-Gazette.
How common are statewide strikes?
Most strikes are local and focused on issues specific to a district’s collective bargaining agreement, including wages, health care costs, planning time, and other core issues. But every so often, teachers across all or much of a state come together to protest a larger issue, usually directed toward the state legislature.
The first statewide teacher strike was in Florida in 1968. Since public employees are prohibited from striking in Florida, more than 27,000 teachers—about 40 percent of the state’s teaching force—submitted their resignation letters and walked out. The teachers called for higher salaries and school budget increases and were out of classrooms for about three weeks. The state ultimately increased education funding, but thousands of teachers were not rehired due to their involvement in the strike.
Since then, statewide strikes have happened sporadically. For example, Utah teachers forced 38 of the state’s 40 school districts to close for one day in 1989. And Hawaii teachers went on strike for 20 days in 2001, closing every public school in the state except for one small school on the privately owned island of Ni’ihau. (All public schools in Hawaii are part of the same school district.)
A wave of large-scale teacher activism emerged in 2018, starting with teachers in West Virginia, who were on strike for almost two weeks over low pay and rising health insurance costs. They secured a 5 percent pay raise and inspired educators across the country to follow suit. Teachers in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oklahoma all had statewide walkouts and protests to varying degrees.
West Virginia teachers went on strike again the following year, this time for two days as they successfully protested a bill that would have allowed tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. The Mountain State had also experienced statewide teacher walkouts in 1990 and 2007—part of the state’s long history of labor activism that notably includes coal miner strikes in the early 1900s, Shelton noted.
Generally, Shelton said, statewide teacher walkouts tend to happen in states without strong collective bargaining rights, as local teachers’ unions would otherwise negotiate directly with their districts.
Are teachers paid during strikes?
Generally, no, but it depends. Sometimes, strike days are treated like snow days, meaning that the employees make up the missed days at the end of the year.
But other times, a school district might not need to make up the days or it might remain open during a strike, with administrators and substitutes staffing classrooms. In those cases, the striking teachers are not paid. And some states have laws stating that teachers will lose pay during a strike—in New York, for example, striking teachers are fined two days’ pay for every day the employer determines they were in violation of the law.
Can other school employees strike?
Yes, school support workers can and do go on strike, too. These employees, which include bus drivers, cafeteria workers, secretaries, and instructional aides, tend to strike over low wages and benefits.
Notably, in April 2023, Los Angeles teachers joined school support workers on the picket line for three days in a show of solidarity. The support staff union won pay bumps, expanded health care benefits, an increase to the minimum wage, and the creation of a $3 million professional development fund.
In some districts, principals are also unionized with collective bargaining rights. But there is little record of school leaders going on strike.
What other labor actions do teachers take?
Teacher strikes are usually a last resort, given the disruption they cause to students and families and the fact that they’re often illegal. There are other bargaining tactics teachers’ unions often try first.
A “walk in” protest is when teachers gather before work, wearing union T-shirts and holding signs, and then walk into school in unison. Sometimes, they’re accompanied by students, parents, and other community members or advocates.
“Work-to-rule” or “working the contract” is when teachers stop doing any work that’s not explicitly required by their contract. That means that they refuse to do the unpaid overtime that most teachers do on a daily basis—including responding to student emails at night, grading over the weekends, or planning lessons before school—and turn down any voluntary assignments, including supervising student extracurricular activities.
And “sick-out” protests are when teachers coordinate calling in sick on the same day, which can shut down schools or entire districts.
In Clark County earlier this fall, eight schools had to be closed in seven days due to teacher absences. A Nevada judge then ruled that the effort constituted an illegal strike and issued the school district a preliminary injunction to end the sickouts. The Clark County Education Association appealed the injunction to the state supreme court.