Teaching Profession

Understanding Teachers’ Strikes: Where They Happen and How Often

By Ross Brenneman — October 21, 2015 5 min read
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[CORRECTION: March 14, 2018: The original version of this post incorrectly stated the number of strikes held in Pennsylvania in 2015. The correct number is 6.]

There have been a lot of teachers’ strikes this fall.

Teachers in East St. Louis, Ill., remain on strike through more than two weeks of school closures. The key sticking point is a district proposal that would double the number of years it would take for teachers to reach the top of their salary schedules. A two-week strike in Scranton, Pa., ended last Tuesday after paraprofessionals and teachers secured a two-year agreement containing a 2.7 percent raise. An eight-day strike also came to a close earlier this month in McHenry County, Ill. These strikes follow others that have been resolved in Seattle, in Pasco, Wash., and Prospect Heights, Ill., earlier this fall.

A casual observer may think there have been an inordinate number of teachers’ strikes this year. An Education Week Teacher analysis of public school teachers’ strikes over the past six years, however, shows that the pace of such strikes hasn’t increased or decreased significantly. And considering how many school districts there are, strikes are rare occurrences, attention-grabbing though they may be.

“Strike” can have a hard definition to pin down. For instance, a boycott of a standardized test by teachers in Seattle in 2013 didn’t involve a cessation in other teaching duties. There were a series of one-day strikes in Washington state earlier this year to protest a lack of state funding, but then faculty returned to work. Teachers in Jefferson County, Colo., participated in a “sickout” last October over possible changes to the AP U.S. History curriculum; students there staged walkouts as well, all of which led to multiple school closures.

But for this analysis, Education Week Teacher used news archives to examine organized, sustained actions that involved the threat of indefinite public school closures. Or, more informally, a know-it-when-you-see-it approach.

How Many Teachers’ Strikes Have There Been, and Where?

Here are the number of teachers’ strikes between 2010-15, by state:

  • Pennsylvania: 19
  • Illinois: 16
  • California: 5
  • Washington: 5
  • Oregon: 4
  • Ohio: 2
  • Vermont: 2
  • Missouri: 2

2015, 2014 and 2012 have had the most strikes in recent years:

To re-emphasize an earlier point: There are several thousands of public school districts in the United States where bargaining takes place, so 13 strikes in one year represents a minuscule amount of negotiation failure. And yet: Every strike is a disruptive event that affects an entire community—parents who may have difficulty tending to their children during work hours; students who might depend on school for at least one solid meal per day; teachers who would rather be teaching; and the community as a whole that schools support. Strikes are important events.

How Laws and Politics Influence Strikes

While almost all of the 55 strikes in our studied time period were by teachers affiliated with one of the major national teachers’ unions, more strikes were initiated by affiliates of the National Education Association than the American Federation of Teachers, by about a 4-to-1 ratio. (One likely reason being that the NEA is much larger than the AFT.)

There was a similar lopsidedness in terms of calendar timing, with only one-third of the strikes occurring in a month other than August, September, or October. Those are months when contracts often expire—and they are also around the time when the school year starts, potentially bringing more attention to the issues at stake.

There are also a couple reasons for why some states have many more strikes than others.

First, every state has separate laws about the legality of public-sector striking. Most states don’t allow teachers to strike, as they consider teachers to be essential public personnel.

Washington, which has had dozens of strikes in the past several decades, outlawed public-sector strikes, but there’s just enough theoretical vagueness in the law that teachers have nevertheless gone on strike there. Pennsylvania and Illinois both allow strikes; in the former’s case, state law dictates how long strikes are permitted to last, to ensure that students still have 180 days of instruction per school year. Illinois passed a law in 2011 to limit the permissible terms of a teachers’ strike.

Illinois’ strike count may have more to do with a convergence of factors somewhat unique to the state’s political climate in 2012, as teachers began to assert themselves more following years of cost-cutting derived from the Great Recession, as the Chicago Daily Herald has reported.

As for why Pennsylvania leads the way, a spokeswoman for the department of education stayed mum: “Labor contracts and disputes are a local matter and the department does not intervene or comment on any labor negotiations or disputes.” But Wythe Keever, assistant communications director for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said that the aforementioned state law may cut short negotiations before a long-term solution is found.

“The law’s goal is to encourage earlier bargaining and settlements but the law lacks any meaningful type of closure,” Keever said via email. “There is no point at which both sides must reach an agreement, so in a new calendar year, if a contract agreement has not been reached, the bargaining process simply resets and begins again.”

Another part of the problem for Pennsylvania has been education funding generally. This year, a major impasse has left districts uncertain about their financial futures; administrators in Scranton pointed to that as a reason they had difficulty bargaining. And Pennsylvania’s budget in previous years has been, to put it generously, a sticky situation.

Education Week’s Maya Riser-Kositsky and Rachel Edelstein contributed research to this story.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.