Teacher Unions Right to Strike: A Discussion

The teacher union in New York City (UFT) is embroiled in contract negotiations, under New York State law expired contracts remain in “full force and effect” until the successor contract is ratified, the negotiations could conclude tomorrow or drag on for many months.  All public employee contracts in NYC have expired; the police (PBA) have been without a successor contract for six years.  Public employee labor relations are governed by the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) usually referred to as the Taylor Law. Thousands of public employee unions with hundreds of thousands of members fall under the law.

In Los Angeles non-teaching staff, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, aides, etc, announced a three day strike (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday last week) and the Los Angeles Teacher Union (UTLA), in the process of negotiating a contract agreed not to cross picket line. On Wednesday both sides announced a settlement was reached and all staff returned on Friday.  The teacher contract remains unresolved.

At the last UFT Delegates Meeting a member moved to amend a motion by adding language to direct the UFT to pursue removing language from the Taylor Law that prohibits strikes. A union officer responded opposing the amendment: strikes, regardless of the law, remain an option, depending upon the situation. The motion was defeated.

The issues of teacher strike as a negotiating strategy continues to be debated see here and here.

Lets begin by looking across the nation, the right of teachers to form unions, bargain collectively and strike varies widely from state to state

Collective bargaining by public sector employees and therefore teachers is explicitly illegal in GeorgiaNorth CarolinaSouth CarolinaTexas, and Virginia. 12 states have explicitly stated that teacher strikes are legal. These states are AlaskaCaliforniaColoradoHawaiiIllinoisLouisianaMinnesotaMontanaOhioOregonPennsylvania, and Vermont.

The collective bargaining procedures under state law also vary widely:

*Thirty-four states use mediation, in which a third party attempts to broker an agreement between the two parties.

*Twenty-nine states use fact-finding procedures that allow an impartial panel to review both sides of the dispute, report their findings and occasionally make recommendations for settlement. Arbitration, in which an impartial party holds a formal hearing and determines a resolution, is similar to mediation, but the ruling of the third party is often binding and final.

*Twenty-one states provide for voluntary arbitration in which one side or the other can request a hearing. Three states mandate arbitration in which the two sides have to submit to a formal hearing.

State law regarding teacher strikes also varies widely:

Twenty-two states prohibit strikes and 13 states permit them. There are penalties for strikes in 13 states, which range from fines to dismissal to, in some cases, imprisonment.

How do the collective bargaining laws differ regarding strikes in California and New York?

From the California Teachers Association website,

 If labor/management are not able to reach agreement, they can pursue impasse options provided in state law that may lead to a settlement. There may be four impasse options, and one or all could be used to settle a dispute:

Mediation. An impartial neutral person facilitates dialogue between the parties to help them create and reach a resolution.

Fact-finding. A neutral third party hears presented evidence from the parties and makes a formal nonbinding recommendation to the parties. The parties can either accept or reject the recommendation.

Interest arbitration. A neutral arbitrator conducts a formal hearing, analyzes the information presented, and makes a formal binding decision.

Strike. The union engages in a concerted collective action, through which its members withhold services in order to achieve a settlement. With thousands of education employee contracts bargained each year, fewer than ten, on average, result in a strike.

The New York State process is similar: with a major difference, if the parties cannot resolve a contract the state will provide a mediator, if the parties with the assistance of a mediator fail to reach an agreement PERB will assign a Fact finder to identity the issues and if the process is at impasse an arbitrator will conduct a formal arbitration hearing and publish a non-binding decision, strikes are prohibited.

At the end of the process in California teachers can strike, in NYS strikes are prohibited with harsh penalties

Has the right to strike resulted in higher salaries?

NYC appears to have higher teacher salaries than LA  See LA here and NYC here.

Is changing the Taylor Law to permit strikes a possibility?

Jacobin and Left Voices, publications on the left urge taking on the state directly, striking, absorbing the penalties, and using the power in numbers to change the law  (Read her and here)

I’ve made my pilgrimage to the Federationist Wall, to honor the Communards, who were lined up along a wall and shot, change is incremental, one block at a time until the wall falls. I regard strikes as possibility only in dire circumstances.

The last NYC teacher strike was in September, 1975, after months of negotiation, on the verge of the beginning of the school year, the union was debating striking or extending the contract for a month, at the time the union had a “no contract, no work” policy. Precipitously, very precipitously, the city laid off 15,000 teachers and the union when on strike with cries, of, “We won’t come back until we all come back.” 

The City was planning to declare bankruptcy and walk away leaving the running of the City to a federal bankruptcy judge.

After a five day strike saner heads prevailed, the City and Union agreed, a shorter school day to allow schools to function with fewer teachers and the Union loaning the City money to avoid default. 

Under bankruptcy all contract benefits as well as health plans and pensions fall under the power of the bankruptcy judge. Read here and Detroit, who did declare bankruptcy here.

Read a “blow by blow” account of the brinksmanship barely averting bankruptcy here..

Public education is under assault, Florida is diverting $4 billion tax dollars to school vouchers, any parent can receive vouchers for charter, private or parochial schools, and, Texas is not far behind. State after state prohibiting what can be taught, what can be read, a return to the McCarthyism of the 50’s; the teaching profession is fighting in the trenches of the culture wars.

As COVID struck we learned about Zoom, Google Classroom and other platforms and there are numerous discussions re artificial intelligence replacing teachers..

The battle is over the survival of public education,

If we were able to remove Taylor Law penalties, btw, highly unlikely, we would face an assault from the right, who would be our allies? 

Fighting for contracts is at the core the role of unions; however, we shouldn’t concentrate our efforts on gaining the right to strike, to strike without onerous penalties; we should concentrate our efforts on improving the negotiating process within the Taylor Law.

Ability to Pay and Pattern Bargaining are not part of the law, in fact, they are malleable concepts, and currently are tipped in favor of management.  Read here

Yesterday Randy Weingarten gave a national speech ,

“Attacks on public education are not new. The difference today is that the attacks are intended to destroy it. To make it a battlefield, a political cudgel,” and, among a number of policies to  “ … renew and revive the teaching profession by treating educators as the professionals they are, with appropriate pay; time to plan and prepare for classes, to collaborate with colleagues, and to participate in meaningful professional development; and the power to make day-to-day classroom decisions.”

We have to build a crusade, teachers and parents and electeds and advocates to defend public education .or, we may not have a public education system to defend.

4 responses to “Teacher Unions Right to Strike: A Discussion

  1. Do Charter Schools strike????


  2. In 1968, during the near two month UFT strike led by Albert Shanker and his then protege Randi Weingarten, was a flagrant “money grab” from an inexperienced progressive Mayor John Lindsay. IN turn, the Sanitation strike lasted for more than 30 days and literally saw mountains of garbage and rats everywhere, until LIndsay caved. The same happened with Police and DC 37. For the better part of three months, city folk and their public school kids were looked askance upon while each union grabbed all they could, because they knew it would be a last chance to gain in one contract what might have taken three to accomplish. Yes schools were open, and the few teachers and administrators who did cross the picket lines , showed movies all day long, Why did they bother? Because if they hadn’t done so. many of our kids would have gone hungry. There needs to be new guidelines constructed for “good faith bargaining. With regard to Teachers expiring contracts, negotiations should be held over the two month summer vacation time. I wonder if the UFT bargainers would be as eager to give up two summer months to negotiate a contract during their vacation time.


  3. Eric Nadelstern

    I need to begin by stating that I am fully aware and very appreciative of the fact that I and many other retired educators in NYC owe the UFT an enormous debt of gratitude for the generous pensions we receive. As a retired deputy chancellor in Tier I, it turns out that I was working pro bono for the last five years of my employment with the NYC DOE. While I suspected that at the time, I never truly appreciated the enormity of that benefit until my pension consultation with TRS weeks before retiring in 2011.

    Notwithstanding, there have been only two mistakes that UFT leaders made in the 50 years since I first started teaching in the City that run counter to the union’s stellar record at providing its members with a dignified retirement. The first was when Randy Weingarten cashiered in 1 1/4% of TDA fixed returns for an enhanced contractual salary settlement. As a consequence, CSA member continue to earn 8 1/4% interest annually on our TDA savings, but UFT members only receive 7% annually on fixed investments. Take my word for the fact that the compounded result has been a significant loss for retired teachers in NYC.

    The second such mistake also involves selling out retirees for what promises to be a better contract for active UFT members. Our City has watered down health benefits for retirees in return for hundreds of millions of dollars in savings at our expense. Ostensibly, some of those savings can be used to sweeten the next contract for teachers. This raid on our benefits would not have been possible without the support of Mike Mulgrew and the UFT. Given that most of us aspire to a retirement with dignity, having our health benefits cannabalized will inevitably be a grave error not only for current retirees, but also for active members who aspire to these benefits that more senior members currently enjoy but will lose in a mere matter of months.


  4. Charles Glassman

    all I can is that 2 retired teachers or administrators who retired in tier 1 or tier 2 or even tier 3 are incredibly thankful to theUFT–maybe pensions like we have should before every retired person so that they can enjoy the fruits of their labor You might ask, “how can we pay for it?”

    Tax the filthy rich, make corporations pay their fair share old taxes etc etc etc

    AdditonallyI would figureoputa plan to defund Congress , pay them as we some athletes bonuses for what they accomplish–nothing gets nothing or fire them and hire someyojunger blood.
    I there a better job than a US senator-does anyone ask what thierpensiopnis or their health benefits


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