Should Teachers Be Allowed to Strike?

Roughly 400 union members in Burlington are walking the picket lines after contract talks with the school board did not end in a resolution

As a teachers’ strike in Vermont marched through its second day, an old debate reignited about whether such strikes should be legal.

Roughly 400 union members in Burlington are walking the picket lines after contract talks with the school board did not end in a resolution.

It means classes in all schools across the city have been canceled since Thursday morning.

Both sides have said they’re close on health benefits and pay, with working conditions the main sticking point.

Among those, union president Fran Brock said, are staffing levels and certain non-teaching duties for elementary school educators, such as lunch room and recess monitoring.

Teachers believe that time would be better spent preparing for classes or meeting with students 1-on-1, but the superintendent and board insist those periods require experienced educators to be alert to problems like bullying.

“Discipline issues happen during the unstructured times,” said Yaw Obeng, the superintendent of schools in Burlington. “Unstructured times are before school, lunch, recess, passing in the hallways, and after school. Those are times we need our expert educators who know the kids and know their behaviors to be around to supervise.”

“The cafeteria time, the recess time—those are big chunks of time that teachers can and should be using to prepare for classes, and prepare for individual time with students,” said Fran Brock, a high school history teacher who also serves as union president of the Burlington Education Association.

As the stalemate between the board and union continues, Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, is planning on re-introducing legislation that would ban teachers from going on strike.

“It’s just a terrible system,” he told necn Friday.

Wright said strikes are disruptive and leave lasting scars that pit neighbor against neighbor.

He has tried, failed, and wants to try again to get a bill through the Vermont Legislature that would encourage collective bargaining, while eliminating a teacher’s right to strike. His bill would also eliminate a school board’s ability to impose contract terms, he said.

“I do support teachers, and I support our school board,” Wright said. “But I also support taxpayers. I support students. And I support our community. This system [of allowing teachers’ strikes] actually tears the community apart.”

According to data from the National Education Association, Vermont is one of only 12 states in the country where it’s currently legal for K-12 public school educators to go on strike. Vermont is the only state in New England where it’s legal for them do so.

“We firmly believe, as a union, that the right to strike is fundamental,” said Darren Allen of the Vermont NEA.

Allen said teacher strikes are used sparingly, and only as a last resort. He said the Burlington strike is the twenty-seventh in Vermont in the past 50 years.

“We would argue that the right to strike at least guarantees a resolution,” Allen said.

Vermont’s previous governor, Democrat Peter Shumlin, wanted to see teacher strikes outlawed, believing outside arbitrators should settle standoffs between school boards and unionized teachers.

Shumlin’s successor, Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, said Thursday he does not see the need for statewide rules on local issues.

“I support the teachers’ right to strike,” Scott told reporters. “It’s unfortunate, it’s uncomfortable for the students and the families and everyone involved, but it’s their right to do so. It was the right of the school board to impose the contract, as well.”

Allen said most Vermont teacher strikes tend to last a week or less. He noted more than half of the state’s public school teachers are currently working with unsettled contracts.

The Burlington school district announced late Thursday that it would allow sports to resume during the strike, including the big homecoming football game Friday night between Burlington and South Burlington.

Fran Brock said she and other teachers will not be in attendance at the football game, but wished the Burlington students well in the matchup.

The homecoming dance will be rescheduled for a later date, the district announced. 

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