Opinion: Strikes reveal decay of relationships between the public, school districts and Teachers’ Unions

Chabot Elementary School fourth grade teacher Laura Shield talks with a student in her class in Oakland, Calif., Monday, March 4, 2019. Thousands of Oakland teachers are back in classrooms after union members voted to approve a contract deal. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Oakland school teachers have recently joined Virginia, Los Angeles, Kansas, Denver and other school districts in striking. Many are emboldened by the successes in Denver and Los Angeles in which concessions were granted, such as 6 percent raises and smaller class sizes in Los Angeles, and increased wages and reduced bureaucracy in Denver.

Oakland’s plight lies partly in low compensation but also in high student-to-teacher ratios, student-to-nursing ratios, student-to-counseling staff ratios and low retention rates. Furthermore, this is despite having high spending for students relative to the state average. However, low compensation is not exclusive to these jurisdictions. Teachers are underappreciated in most states, making an average of 67.2 percent normal wages when controlled for educational level. Accounting for benefits, however, this reduces to just an 11.7 point gap. NPR speculates that these strikes are a result of the Janus decision preventing unions from extracting dues from nonmembers.

Teachers’ unions are among the more well-known unions and, as stated, need to unionize in order to prevent further loss of funds. While the Janus decision is prodding unions back into organizing strikes like those of Cesar Chavez and air traffic controllers in the 1980s, considering the lack of compensation given to teachers, such a strike was certainly necessary in most places.

In Oakland, besides the high cost of living, there is evidence of graft by the administrators and a prioritizing of charter schools over public schools which deprives already flailing schools (Oakland gets a boost in funding due to new rules and the fact that 78 percent of the members of the district are high needs or at risk students) of needed funding. Supplies are often either donated by students in wealthier neighborhoods or bought out-of-pocket in less affluent or sympathetic districts. One often cited problem which occurs in Oakland and Virginia is that the unions distrust their negotiators. Virginia teachers cited a lack of trust in state legislators while Oakland and Los Angeles suspect, and independent state auditors have verified, administrators of graft and claiming that money used for one category is also being utilized for another category.

There are people who opine that teachers do not become teachers for wealth, but rather to share insights with their students and to serve the community and therefore, strikes are selfish and unproductive, inconveniencing students. While strikes may inconvenience students, strikes in the coal mining industry from 1903 to 1904 altered the structure of the jobs. If the lack of trust indeed resulted in the current crisis, teachers have another recourse which would be less optimistic in obtaining reform and less newsworthy. This is of course to reach out to parents to vote. Vote for those who support education. Vote out the current school boards and replace them with new board members.

However, relying on elections for reform is riskier than striking for a few reasons. One, it requires an educated, involved populace, which may not exist. Two, it leaves the problem unfixed until the next election. However, considering that strikes only started this year, this situation has lasted for so many years that waiting for local elections is a realistic solution. Teachers strike when they fail to negotiate an acceptable bargain and achieve reform through negotiations. An advantage of striking is that while trust may not exist between the state legislators and district administrators, at least teachers are aware of that and can trust them to negotiate with the union and eventually resolve the problem. New administrators would lack experience, may not truly reform the system, and may hire the current negotiators and treasurers who are causing the current crisis.

Strikes, despite their provocative nature, remain a more reliable agent for change than elections. However, strikes have two large flaws. Firstly, despite how much people complain about unions funding political candidates, the United States has never had a strong union movement with only gaining power in the 1950s and late 19th and early 20th century. Even in the late 19th and early 20th century, some of the leaders of the movement in the beginning like Samuel Gompers opposed state facilitated aid to the workers as the government could turn back on the workers when it suited them. Secondly, strikes deprive students of education, worsening their public image.

The third problem is that those most able to strike need it the least. Strikes end when either a consensus is reached or one side has to concede the dispute to the other side to preserve their finances. One question that could kill these strikes is economics prompting teachers to stop striking to receive their paycheck. Tenure and a tendency to unionize will make teacher unions less susceptible to this than other fields, but in the light of the Janus decision, economic interests may force non-union workers to break ranks with the strike to provide their families with sustenance. The system may obtain minor concessions but I doubt that those striking have the economic security to alter the system drastically. Striking teachers may finally break the complacency that has allowed education to be neglected.


Jacob Ningen is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at jacob.ningen@uconn.edu.