What Law Enforcement Can Learn from Recent Teachers' Strikes
By Roy Carlson, Attorney - Monday, February 25, 2019
Since 2012, there has been a level of labor activism that has not been seen in the United States in a generation by Teachers and other education professionals. Teachers and other education professionals across the country engaged in coordinated concerted activity in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Georgia, Colorado, and Los Angeles in 2018 and 2019.
Teachers in West Virginia were able to secure a 5% increase in their pay. In Oklahoma, Teachers received an average raise of $6,000. Teachers in Kentucky got an increase in per-student funding. Arizona teachers secured a 20% increase in pay by 2020. Some teachers in Colorado were able to secure a 2.5% raise at the district level. Teachers in North Carolina secured modest raises following a one-day strike. Teachers in Los Angeles won a number of concessions on education issues during their 2019 strike.
There are new rounds of labor activity going on even as this article is being written. Teachers in Denver just reached a tentative agreement after 3 days on strike where educators will see anywhere between 7% to 11% increases next year. The Chicago Teachers Union has organized an historic strike against the Chicago International Charter School, the first time there has been a strike at a charter school in the country.
The first major education strike in a generation took place in 2012 in Chicago. Then, 90% of the membership (25,000 members) voted to authorize the strike. The Chicago Teachers Union was able to secure 17.6% raises for its members and protections for laid off teachers following a week-long strike. The strike was widely viewed as a success and set the course for so much of the successful labor actions across the country. The Chicago Teachers Union has spoken out about the importance of community collaboration to set up labor action. In particular, the Chicago Teachers Union was able to collaborate with local groups in each neighborhood, and that support, along with the solidarity of their membership, made their message even stronger.
The Illinois FOP Labor Council represents law enforcement and other public safety employees. Most members of this Union are not permitted to go out on strike by state law. There is still a lot that can be learned and gained from the success that the teachers are having right now. Labor actions, like informational pickets, are tools that the Labor Council should consider going forward as part of its strategy. An informational picket is not a strike. The membership still goes to work. On their own time, the members engage in picketing outside the employer’s premises to inform the public about the issue that is of concern to the Union.
For any labor action to succeed, it must have 2 critical components—community collaboration and well-organized internal strength within the membership. Labor actions are not easy and take persistence. The most successful teacher actions had strong commitment from the membership. In West Virginia, the rank and file membership pushed Union leadership to strike. The membership rejected a deal reached by Union leadership with the state and continued on with a wildcat strike (a strike not authorized by Union leadership). The strike continued and the Union got the 5% wage increase they wanted.
The lesson from West Virginia is not to ignore Union leadership, but rather that an action that comes from the grassroots of the Union will have staying power and be far more likely to succeed. When members are willing to take their own time and make the commitment to the labor action, it will be more successful. Having 2 labor representatives and 3 members show up for an action is not going to move management or the public to support that which is needed by the membership. If anything, a poor showing at a labor action often results in empowering management and weakening the position of the Union.
For a labor action to be successful, members need to show up on their own time and participate. They need to bring their spouses, kids, and parents. It is crucial to build coalitions with groups in the community and have that support. The Chicago Teachers Union succeeded in forging an alliance with the students and their parents in 2012. That alliance was crucial for the success the Teachers had.
If your bargaining unit has reached the end of what traditional bargaining can do, it is worth considering an informational picket. Build a strong commitment with the rest of your bargaining unit. Get support from the local community. Form coalitions with other unions. Coordinate with your Union representative. Ultimately, the strength of collective bargaining is the power of labor actions, your labor power. It is not the result of an arbitration award, or a statute. The success of your bargaining is dependent upon the commitment and resolve of your bargaining unit.