By Lisa Regula Meyer
Yes, once again I’m talking about education (please feel free to yell at me if you get sick of this topic). This is not the usual “union” written about here; in this case, I’m talking about labor unions, thanks to a recent strike by the Strongsville teachers, a first strike in Ohio in recent memory. The strike represents a loss of 383 teachers from classrooms and is due to a breakdown in contract negotiations between the union and the administration, and a filing of unfair labor practices by the teachers’ union. Within the last few years, this particular district has lost around 100 teachers, or about 20% of the teaching staff, due to budget cuts. The classes will continue at Strongsville, with substitute teachers and a picket line outside.
Obviously, the quality of education will be changed due to the lack of full-time, permanent teachers and students seeing their teachers picketing. The sight of a picket line is a very teachable moment to discuss labor relations, conflict resolution, and many other valuable lessons in a frame of reference that is not often seen. Many places across the US, “essential” employees of the state, local, and federal government are not allowed to strike because their jobs are considered vital to the good of the community. Think of the air controllers’ strike, and the common ban on police and fire fighters from striking.
Besides the lessons I mentioned above, what are these kids learning from this strike? Since the teachers were legally allowed to strike, they might be learning that education is not essential to the good of the community. This lesson is reinforced by the heavy cutting of teaching staff recently in their schools, and the subsequent increased class sizes and loss of some classes.
They might learn that teachers are easily replaceable by contingent staff, possibly with a lower skill level. They might learn that teachers aren’t skilled workers, since they are so easily replaced, and maybe that they don’t deserve the respect that we afford other professional skilled workers like doctors or dentists. That lesson could also be gained by a quick look at the pay of various professionals.
They could be learning that workers and employers are not on equal footing at the negotiating table. I’m sure some of them will be learning from their parents and the larger discussion to that either unions are bad or that employers are bad, depending on the household. Maybe some students will learn a bit of the history of labor relations in the US, and the history of unions here.
No matter what combination of the above lessons that a child will take away from this situation, there’s a high likelihood that they’ll get the message once again that they aren’t that important, that their welfare is not a top priority. Whether it’s from the taxpayers and legislators who won’t fund education, the teachers who couldn’t stay in the classroom, or the administrators who pay themselves far more than the teaching staff, the message coming across is that there’s something more important than giving kids a quality education. And that message really sucks, for our kids and for us.