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May 23, 2012 Chicago Teachers Union Rally of well over 10,000 people in the streets supporting public education workers in Chicago.
With the Chicago Teachers Union drawing closer to a strike (possibly as early as the first week of September 2012), Chicago teachers, parents and students are asking more and more questions about the legalities and realities of strikes by teachers (and other public workers) in the USA. On one level, it is a question of rights. Workers in the USA establish their rights by winning fair contracts that we can enforce. At times, these contracts must be won by striking.

One of the things teachers can do is teach. And one of the subjects teachers can teach is labor history — and the facts about strikes and striking.

[The following literature is from May 1970 supplied by the American Federation of Teachers to support the many locals that were striking in the 1970's.]

Lesson Plan #1: The “Right” to Strike

The use of injunctions in public-employee strikes is increasingly viewed as an impediment to true collective bargaining. In Michigan, the state supreme court in 1968 (in a case involving Holland, Mich., teachers) upheld a refusal to enjoin a strike unless a clear and present danger to public health and safety was involved. A teacher strike, the court said, presented no such danger. Few other states, however, have moved as far as Michigan in this regard, although public opinion appears to be growing increasingly favorable.

It has been charged that enjoinment of a public-employee strike, such as a teacher strike, has the effect of forcing workers to stay on the job despite what may be intolerable and dangerous conditions. Teachers in Newark, N.J., for example, were driven to the last resort of striking early in 1970. The court issued an ex parte injunction, which means only one side presented its case to the judge, and the result was that 192 teachers were sentenced to jail terms and fines for not going back to work. The injunction included penalties against “aiding and abetting” the strikers, so that AFT President David Selden, who walked on a picket line, was sentenced to three months in jail for contempt of court.

Skirting the issue of the right of public employees to strike, just because it may be “explosive,” is comparable, some people think to avoiding other basic issues of fundamental importance to our society. Legal opinion in most of the United States views a strike against the government as a strike against the sovereignty of the nation, and this is said to be based on the old English common law, the foundation for much of our legal structure.

But while we are clinging to this old “monarchical” approach, the English, for example, are acting quite differently, and they say they are the ones who are following the common law most closely. In a letter to AFT President Selden recently, W.A.C. Kendall, president of the Association of Teachers in Technical Institutions, a union of vocations teachers in England and Wales, said: “I heard today, with considerable surprise, that you were in prison for pursuing what I would have thought were quite legitimate aims of a teachers trade union. That the leader of a teachers union can be so treated in the U.S.A. is a matter of considerable surprise to me. We have recently been involved in militant action and I would have been proud to go to prison had it been necessary but fortunately our law is more liberal.”

Historical Background

The first recorded strike occurred about 1170 B.C., when workers at the Necropolis in Thebes walked off their jobs because the government of Egypt had not paid them in two months. (Note, they were public employees.) And on April 13, 1970, the United Teachers of Los Angeles struck because of the long list of unresolved grievances involving the poor state of educational affairs in that city and state.

It would appear, then, that a dilemma is at hand. As stated earlier, the federal government prohibits its employees to strike – but they strike. Most states also prohibit they strike – the people strike.

The dilemma has been phrased very well by Heisell and Hallihan in Questions and Answers on Public Employee Negotiation.

“Horn No. 1: Some public services are so vital to the immediate safety of the citizenry that a strike is unthinkable.

“Horn No. 2: Given sufficient stimulus, any group of employees, public or private, essential or nonessential, with or without the legal right to strike, will strike.”

It would appear obvious, then, that to legislate against strikes is only to provide punitive tools after the strike has taken place, tools that may or may not be usable. (Can one conceive of arresting 22,000 Los Angeles teachers?) More pertinent, it seems to us, would be adequate machinery to solve grievances so that the strike would become less necessary.

“More Conscientious”

It is noteworthy that public employees often seem more conscientious about professional standards than are their employers. Social workers have struck to have their caseloads reduced so that they can more effectively service their clients. Nurses and hospital attendants have struck to have more people employed in order to better care for their patients. And, certainly, one of the major demands of the Los Angeles teachers is the reduction of class size so that they can be better teachers.

It is equally important to note that much of the discomfort of public employees has to do with the whole growing “urban crisis.” More people in smaller spaces expect more and better services. Family patterns change, forcing public agencies to do what the extended family did, or did not do, before. New thrills, new “kicks,” seduce the proliferating urban young. (An official of the United Teachers of Los Angeles has asserted that in 92 percent of the secondary schools of that city drugs are a major problem.) And race relations continue to be extremely abrasive. Public employees, then, often see no way to change the “horse-and-buggy” structure of their employing agencies except to shock them with desperate action.

In any case, the teacher should keep in mind that all of his students in all his classes, 95 percent will shortly become somebody’s employees. And increasingly, the employer will be a public agency. We have prepared this teaching unit to help the teacher acquaint his class with what can be expected and what constitutes the problem areas.

Lesson #1

Preface: If there has been a recent teacher strike in your district, you may wish to discuss it as a general introduction to this unit. Or, you may want to talk about the postal strike or the air-traffic controllers’ work stoppage, or strikes by any group of public workers which have, in some way or another, had a direct effect on your students.

Aim: The teacher should acquaint his high-school students with the changing nature of the economy, from one geared to production and distribution of goods to one of increasing needs for public service. This should not be too difficult since studies reveal that today’s young people already sincerely want their life’s work to have social important.

Motivation: It seems to us that the greatest tool for motivation in this case would simply be to present as much concise and valid information as possible about the prospects for public service. Much material is available from public agencies and should be obtained by the teacher, condensed, and presented to his class. Perhaps a representative from the Civil Service Commission, the Department of Public Welfare, or a similar agency can be brought to the class for a presentation. If possible, the teacher should meet with the representative chosen to ascertain his ability in this matter. A poorly prepared or inarticulate spokesman can do great harm to the teacher’s class.


The basic contents of this teaching unit – including of the overview and the suggestions for Lessons 1, 2, and 3 – were written at the AFT’s request by Will Scoggins, a noted labor historian who teaches at El Camino College in California.  Mr. Scoggins received his B.A. degree from Baylor University in 1949 and his M.S. degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1951.  In 1960, he attended the University of Oslo while on a Fulbright teaching grant in Norway.  He has taught history and government in several high schools and colleges since 1951.  In 1964 and 1965, he served on the staff of the Center for Labor Research and Education of the Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles, and spent several months inquiring into the instruction that high schools in Los Angeles County give students who will soon enter the world of work as someone’s employee.  Out of that study came his book “Labor in Learning,” published by the University of California in 1966.

The teaching unit was critically reviewed by John A. Sessions of the AFL-CIO education department, and by several former classroom teachers now on the staff of the American Federation of Teachers national office in Washington, D.C.  A number of staff members contributed supplementary information to the unit.

[Should Your Teacher Strike? Was converted from a .pdf copy of the insert supplied by Dan Glondner, AFT Archivist]

Should Your Teacher Strike May 1970                                                                                            

Originally posted to Hyde Park Johnny on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 08:19 AM PDT.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mentatmark, JeffW

    Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach. -Aristotle

    by Hyde Park Johnny on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 08:19:30 AM PDT

  •  Well, I'm glad that first breakthrough was reached (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    That's the longer day, added music etc time, and the first recall of layoff teachers.

    So far everything's been quiet on the money/benefit front.

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 08:37:23 AM PDT

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