Public Strikes Explained: Why There Aren't More of Them

  • September 25, 2012
  • By Melissa Maynard
Teachers walk a picket line during their seven-day strike against the Chicago Public Schools in September. (Getty)

The recent seven-day teacher strike in Chicago captured the nation's attention for a host of reasons: the high-profile personalities driving the standoff, the size of the school district and sheer number of inconvenienced families involved, the broader questions about education reform that were at the core of the dispute.

But the 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.

In this Explainer, Stateline examines the politics and legal issues behind strikes by teachers and other public employees.

How common are teacher strikes?

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.

Why aren't they more common?

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.

This is in large part because of a massive 1919 police strike that took place in Boston after the police commissioner prohibited members of the force from joining unions. “It led to anarchy in Boston,” says Martin Malin, director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at the Kent College of Law in Chicago. “There was a massive crime wave. The specter of the Boston police strike has dominated public policy on labor relations ever since." President Ronald Reagan made reference to the Boston Police Strike when he famously fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers in1981.

Concerns about public employee strikes thwarted the development of collective bargaining statutes until the 1960s and 1970s. When Wisconsin became the first state to allow collective bargaining for public employees in 1959, it included strong prohibitions on strikes. Other states followed suit, outlining alternative processes to strikes in cases of bargaining stalemate, including mediation, fact-finding and interest arbitration. Through these mechanisms, independent outsiders are drawn into the disagreement to hear the facts and weigh in, with varying degrees of authority. In the case of interest arbitration — which is particularly common for police and firefighter unions — the arbitrator is allowed to make the final decision unilaterally after hearing from both sides.

Even where strikes are illegal, they happen. State statutes prohibiting strikes aren't always an effective deterrent unless they include penalties or allow judges to order strikers back to work. As it became clear through illegal public sector strikes in the 1970s and 1980s that not all strikes would be as disastrous as the Boston police strike, states such as Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio began including a broad right to strike in their collective bargaining statutes for public employees.

Why don't public employee strikes happen more often in the places where they are legal?

Strikes often end without an agreement but come with significant costs for both sides. They can damage public opinion toward both elected leaders and the public employees involved, and bring real financial consequences for the strikers.

Strikes have been especially rare in the budget-cutting environment that has been the reality in most states for the past few years. This isn't because labor relations are generally rosy — far from it. But striking public workers tend not to fare well in the court of public opinion because the public expects them to share in the widespread economic pain. “Strikes tend to be won or lost on public support more than anything else," says Joseph Slater, professor at the University of Toledo College of Law. “[Workers] may rightly feel put upon, but they have to be very leery of alienating the public.” Few politicians have been thrown out of office for supporting cuts to public employee pay and benefits in recent years, despite the toll those cuts have taken on labor relations.

Many public sector union contracts include “no strike clauses” as a condition of employment, even in states where strikes are legal. In some cases, the terms of the prior agreement remain in force even after a contract expires until a new agreement is reached, giving workers little incentive to negotiate but also little motivation to strike.

How do public sector strikes differ from strikes by private sector workers?

The right to strike in the private sector is governed by federal law and allowed in all 50 states, while the right to strike exists in the public sector only if granted by state law. The conditions under which strikes are permissible and the procedures required before a strike can actually happen vary widely among states.

In private sector strikes, the motivations and consequences for both parties are economic. The bottom line will suffer for companies if employees don't get back on the job — and for employees if pay checks stop showing up.

But in public sector strikes, the most powerful consequences are political rather than economic. The government will still be able to continue collecting taxes if employees strike, but elected officials may suffer at the polls if strikes make them seem like incompetent leaders. If parents are personally inconvenienced by a teacher strike, their reaction at the voting booth may be even more dangerous to incumbents.

Why do teachers strike more often than other public employees?

If most state agency personnel were to strike, the public outcry wouldn't likely be strong enough to force the government into concessions. At the other end of the scale, police, firefighters and other public employees whose strikes could have life-or-death consequences aren't legally allowed to strike because it is too dangerous.

Teachers occupy a middle ground on the spectrum of “essential” to “nonessential” employees. If they stop showing up to work, they will significantly inconvenience a large number of voters to gain real political traction. The Chicago teacher strike affected 350,000 students and their families — a significant proportion of the voting public. But neither public safety nor public health was endangered.

Also, teacher strikes generally create cash-flow problems rather than permanent financial damage for striking teachers. Because of state requirements governing how much time children have to spend in school each year, days are usually tacked onto the end of the school year as they would be for snowstorms or other cancellations. In the end, teachers risk less of their salaries through striking than other public employees do. Even for teachers, however, the confluence of political forces nearly always makes striking a gesture of last resort.