Political Animal


September 25, 2012 12:29 PM The Rarity of Public Employee Strikes

By Ed Kilgore

With all the attention being paid to the teachers’ strike in Chicago, some folk may wonder why such incidents are so rare, particularly insofar as the issues involved in the strike (particularly test-based teacher evaluation and retention policies) are so common. Today Stateline’s Melissa Maynard reminds us that public employee strikes are illegal in many states, and considered dangerously impolitic almost everywhere:

[T]he most remarkable thing about the strike may be the fact that it happened at all. It was not only the first strike by teachers in Chicago in a quarter of a century, but the first big-city classroom strike anywhere in the country since Detroit teachers struck in 2006.
Public sector labor conflicts over collective bargaining have been a mainstay of state politics in the last couple of years. Still, the word strike hasn’t even been used as a threat in most of those clashes.
According to a database maintained by Mother Jones magazine, there have been 827 teacher strikes in the United States since 1968, but they’ve become increasingly rare in the last decade.
Pennsylvania alone accounts for the vast majority of teacher strikes — 740 of the total 827 — but even there, few strikes have occurred since 2007. A Pennsylvania law passed in 1992 that provided incentives for contract resolution has reduced the prevalence of strikes: Before the law, the state experienced an average of 27.6 teacher strikes per year, but after the law, the average dropped to 8.6 per year between 1992 and 2007.

Teacher strikes aren’t even an option in a sizable majority of states, notes Maynard:

Public employees, including teachers, have the formal right to strike in only 11 states. In the other 39, strikes are against the law, although they occasionally break out. Concerns about strikes have long been used as a reason to discourage public sector employees from unionizing and obtaining collective bargaining rights.

And in most of the South, public employees don’t even have the right to collective bargaining.

From a political point of view, of course, the unpopularity of public employee strikes goes all the way back to 1919, to the great Boston police strike that led to the elevation of then-Massachusetts-governor Calvin Coolidge to the GOP national ticket in 1920, and later to the presidency. “There is no right to strike against the public interest,” Silent Cal famously said, which sounds nice in theory but doesn’t make a great deal of sense as a universal rule.

In any event, despite conservative propaganda suggesting some sort of recent assault by “the left” on taxpayers by public-employee unions, the truth is that public-sector unionism is fragile, and that Republican attacks on teachers, police officers, firefighters and others who work for us all are but the leading edge of an ancient war against collective bargaining rights tout court. After all, conservatives reason with increasing passion, what’s good for “job creators” is good for us all, and South Carolina is the utopian community of our future.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • john sherman on September 25, 2012 12:49 PM:

    Some public employee contract have compulsory arbitration.

    Over the years in negotiations public unions have traded current goods in the form of higher salaries for future goods in the form of better pensions. Those bills are coming due, and a lot of public employers are trying to claim that they were just kidding when they cut those deals ten, twenty or thirty years ago. That could start some strikes.

  • gregor on September 25, 2012 1:31 PM:

    That's in the innate nature of conservatism.

    Conservatives make a big hoopla about trying to solve the non-existent problems so that the real problems that would move the people to yearn for change remain under the rug. That's the only way to retain the status quo, which is what conservatism is all about.

    Religion and conservatism - two sides of the same spherical object.

  • c u n d gulag on September 25, 2012 1:38 PM:

    In NY, we have The Taylor Law, which makes public sector strikes virtually impossible.

    When I was a kid growing up in NY City, Albert Shanker was a hero of mine, right up there with Mickey Mantle, Martin Luther King Jr, and Bobby Kennedy.

    Shanker was the head of the Teacher's Union, and we had strikes starting off almost every year - and especially in 1968, when the strike lasted until almost Thanksgiving!

    It got to the point where, if I was misbehaving, my Mom would tell me she'd send me to Catholic School. And I'd heard enough of my friends horror stories, to know I needed to straighten up and fly right - FAST!

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on September 25, 2012 3:33 PM:

    After all, conservatives reason with increasing passion, what’s good for “job creators” is good for us all, and South Carolina is the utopian community of our future.

    Why does this sound like the Grand Ol' South's antebellum slave master justification? What's good for the master is good for the slave...