Jeff Jacoby / January 23, 2023

For Public School Teachers, There Can Be No Right to Strike

Unlike in the private sector, collective bargaining in the public sector is political.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the largest teachers union in the state, has unveiled its top priorities for the next two years. Those priorities do not include holding instructors to more rigorous standards or ensuring that students do better on exams. They do, however, include making it lawful for public employees to go on strike — something that has been flatly illegal in Massachusetts for the past century.

“This outright ban on public employee strikes is unjust,” declares the state’s largest teachers union. It “unfairly restricts the ability of public employees to take collective action in support of themselves and the communities they serve.”

In fact, the ban on strikes by government workers is neither unjust nor unfair. It is essential. When public-sector employees refuse to work, they victimize innocent third parties. It isn’t corporate managers who feel the pain. Ordinary citizens do. Strikes by public employees are intended to deprive the community of essential services — classroom teaching, public safety, trash collection, mass transit. The widespread distress caused by such strikes is intentional: Their underlying strategy is to make the public miserable, thereby increasing the pressure on government officials to bow to the union’s demands.

The president of the teachers union, Max Page, calls it a “fundamental labor and human right” for teachers and other government employees to be able to walk off the job. Page assured the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that if his members engaged in a work stoppage it would not be for selfish motives but “out of love for their students.” Love? Teachers who go on strike hurt their students. They cause academic achievement to suffer. They inflict particular harm on special-needs students, those with disabilities, and those who rely on school for their meals.

When teachers refuse to work, parents are often thrown into turmoil. During one of Chicago’s numerous teachers strikes, the Chicago Sun-Times described the “citywide epidemic” of “stressed-out parents” struggling to cope with the chaos unleashed by the Chicago Teachers Union.

“Parents and guardians frantically sought last-minute child care [and] pleaded with their bosses for leniency… . . Citywide, for thousands of families, stress was high and consequences were real.” The paper quoted Martina Watts, a mother in one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods: “I might be losing my job over this. As long as they’re on strike, I can’t work. I’m not getting paid.”

In the private sector, employees who go on strike are subject to market discipline. They know that there are limits to the claims they can make of an employer — after all, private companies must remain profitable or fail. Let unions demand too much and management may respond by closing a facility, increasing automation, or relocating to another state. Private-sector job actions generally turn on economic disputes over how to divide a pie whose size is fixed. Unions claim their members should get more of the profits they help produce; management resists those claims. If a strike is declared, both sides pay a price — the company loses business, the employees lose income, and both are constrained by the hard reality of the bottom line.

But in government, there are no profits to divvy up. Labor disputes in the public sector are about public dollars, which neither employees nor managers produce. When teachers, transit workers, or sanitation workers threaten to strike, it isn’t to squeeze more out of management. It is to extract more from taxpayers — yet taxpayers get no seat at the table.

Unlike in the private sector, collective bargaining in the public sector is political. It amounts to the making of public policy through antidemocratic means. Union officials who have no mandate from the voters are empowered to play a direct role in crafting government policy and deciding how public funds will be spent. In a democracy, that should be intolerable.

For a long time, it was. “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote in 1937. In the private workplace, organized employees should have every right to negotiate with employers. But not in the public sector, said FDR, where “the employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.”

Not only should teachers and other public workers not be permitted to strike, they shouldn’t be permitted to engage in collective bargaining. The salaries and benefits paid to government workers, their hours and conditions of employment, the obligations they are expected to meet — these are all matters of public policy and should be decided by public policymakers. Labor unions ought to have no more of a say in the fashioning of those policies than any other interest group. And public employees who go on strike should be treated as the scofflaws they are, not indulged and encouraged and flattered.

It has become normal in recent years for Massachusetts teachers unions to extort more money and other contract concessions by striking or threatening to do so. “Two more illegal strikes have hit Massachusetts!” excitedly reported the union activist project Labor Notes on its website last fall. It was referring to strikes by teachers in Haverhill and Malden; those came in the wake of strikes, strike threats, or work slowdowns in Andover, Brookline, Dedham, and Belmont. Most recently, the teachers union in Melrose authorized a strike and was promptly rewarded with a lucrative new three-year contract.

Massachusetts voters and politicians haven’t just gotten used to this extortion, they enable it. Teachers who refuse to work know perfectly well they won’t lose their jobs for breaking the law.

The state’s education commissioner, Jeff Riley, pronounced himself “shocked” that the Massachusetts Teachers Union is now demanding that public employee strikes not be merely tolerated but legalized.

Really, though, should he be so surprised? By allowing government-employee unions to engage in collective bargaining, Massachusetts strengthened those unions at the expense of the state’s voters and taxpayers. Declining to enforce the ban on public-sector strikes strengthened them even more. Abolishing the ban altogether is the logical next step. None of this will lead to better schools, improved education, or higher test grades. But that’s OK. The teachers unions “love” their students, and you always hurt the one you love.

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