Teacher Strikes, Explained: Recent Strikes, Where They’re Illegal, and More | Education Week
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.
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