Teachers unions at a virus crossroads

If the American Federation of Teachers goes through with its threat to strike unless reopening plans are completely to their liking, it runs the risk of forever losing support (“The Virus May Strike Teachers Unions,” The Wall Street Journal,” July 30).  I say that because most parents have a high regard for individual teachers but not for their unions.

By making unreasonable demands, teachers unions will increasingly be seen as out strictly for themselves rather than for their students. That has been the charge made against them from the beginning.  As a result, parents will be motivated to form learning pods, which are small groups getting together with a tutor to teach their children or enroll them in private and religious schools that remain open for in-person instruction. Already, nearly 300,000 families in New York City have signed up for remote-only learning.

I don’t think that will happen on a large scale across the country, but it is a possibility that has the potential to change the face of public education in this country in the years ahead.


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2 Replies to “Teachers unions at a virus crossroads”

  1. As I understand the AFT’s position, it is authorizing strikes where the local union believes in-school teaching would be unsafe due to covid for teachers and/or students.

    I’ve seen some references in Washington Post op-eds or editorials suggesting that the AFT is proposing teacher strikes for broader purposes — that is, in support of issues unrelated to reopening schools safely during covid. But, I have not seen any evidence that the AFT is actually proposing such strikes (as opposed to encouraging teachers to vote and work for the Dems).

    Seems reasonable to me that teachers (or any other employees) should have a protected right to strike where the teachers reasonably believe that working would be unsafe — that is, unsafe for reasons unrelated to the inherent duties of the employee’s job (like firemen cannot strike to avoid the dangers inherent in fighting fires). Not sure what the law is re strikes by public employees such as teachers where the reason for the strike is unsafe working conditions; probably varies from state to state. For private sector employees, there is (or at least used to be) a general rule that a refusal to work based on a reasonable safety fear is protected — that is, the employer cannot discipline or discharge the employee for the act of striking. Often that principle arises in the context of a single employee or small group of employees walking off the job in response to a particular situation/health threat rather than a strike called by the employees’ union. Not sure how the principle would apply if, for example, a union called a strike of all 500 employees at a particular employer location but only, say, 100 of the 500 employees were subject to a reasonable health threat. This might be relevant in the school-system situation if, for example, the school system offers parents the choice of in-person or virtual, in-person teaching is dangerous, virtual teaching is safe, and the union calls on all the teachers — virtual as well as in-person — to strike.

    Suspect that school systems all over the country are paying their lawyers for advice re the school systems’ rights vis-a-vis the teachers if the union strikes + if the union does not strike but individual teachers refuse to work as well as advice re the school systems’ potential $ liability if teachers, students, or family members get sick from covid when the school system has required the teachers to teach and the students to attend.


  2. Labor Lawyer: Thanks for these legal distinctions. As important as they are, however, I think taxpayers will focus instead on a double standard here. If grocery workers are considered essential, why aren’t teachers? Isn’t the education of students as important as the groceries we eat? Teachers unions have to be careful that they don’t appear to overreach if they want to retain public support.


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