Allow taxpayers to decide the outcome of teacher strikes

Allow taxpayers to decide the outcome of teacher strikes
© Getty Images

The recent wave of teacher strikes shut down secondary education systems in a number of states, including West Virginia, Colorado, Arizona, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Notably, those states lack statutes covering collective bargaining procedures and provide no formal voice for public school teachers. From a labor relations perspective, the strikes are problematic both politically and economically — politically because strikes occur outside the legal system and economically because teachers may avoid some of the consequences of a strike.

When Congress enacted the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act of 1935, it excluded the public sector from the definition of employer and left the regulation of collective bargaining to state authority. Elected school boards usually govern teachers in a specific school district, and those boards can be subject to intense and immediate pressure from their constituents. If a board member opposes teacher demands, he or she can face defeat in the next election. On the other hand, teacher pay raises may lead to tax increases and legislative reaction. The unique features of teacher bargaining can distort the process of negotiation.

The economic theory of strikes supposes that both labor and management inflict costs on each other during a work stoppage because employers lose the productive value of labor, and employees lose the wages paid for labor. Increasing teacher salaries leads to tax burdens for citizens, but teachers may be able to make up their loss of income by adding additional days of instruction at the end of the school year.


One solution to the problem is a regime of bargaining that involves compulsory mediation and fact-finding recommendations. Under the model, the parties would be given a short period within which to accept or reject the fact finder’s recommendations. If the school board rejected the recommendations, teachers legally could engage in a protected strike. If the union rejected the recommendations, the impasse would be submitted to a referendum election in the school district, with the union paying the cost of the election.

Voters would choose between the fact finder’s recommendation and the union’s proposal. In the event both parties rejected the recommendations, the referendum election would be held, with the costs of the election shared between the parties. Voters could choose either the union’s or the school board’s final offer at the time of the impasse.

If teacher unions were forced to subsidize an election that they might lose, they would be encouraged to deal realistically with an offer from the employer. Similarly, a school board that provoked a strike without good justification would encounter strong headwinds in its re-election campaigns. Members presumably would suffer the adverse consequences of a strike.

The city of Pueblo, Colorado, adopted a version of the referendum process as part of its code, which has been in effect since 1977. The municipal ordinance calls for advisory arbitration to be accepted or rejected by the parties. If one or both parties decline to accept the decision, they proceed to a city election within 30 to 90 days from the date of the award. Voters choose either the fact finder’s recommendations or the last best offer of the parties. In either case, taxpayers decide the outcome, as they would in the educational model.

The outlawing of strikes has proven ineffective as a means to control labor disputes. In Colorado, two Republican lawmakers reacted to the work stoppage with a bill that “prohibits public school teachers and teacher organizations from directly or indirectly inducing, instigating, encouraging, authorizing, ratifying or participating in a strike against any public school employer. Public school employers are prohibited from consenting to or condoning a strike, and from paying a public school teacher for any day during which the public school teacher participates in a strike.”

Their zeal to criminalize public workers’ collective action demonstrated a tenuous grasp of political reality and constitutional doctrine. They quickly withdrew their dysfunctional bill, and the status quo remains in effect.

If the ongoing conflict in public school systems shows us anything about labor relations it is that some public jobs are essential and deserve fair pay and benefits. Unfortunately, trends in teacher salaries show compensation is largely flat or negative. Consequently, the prognosis for labor peace in secondary education remains bleak.

Raymond L. Hogler, Ph.D., J.D., is a professor of management at Colorado State University’s College of Business. His research focuses on labor and employment. He is the author of numerous articles and four books, including “The End of American Labor Unions: Right to Work Movement and the Failure of Collective Bargaining in the United States.”