The headline of this blog post may come as surprise to those who just read another recent blog post of mine that said the circumstances of the Aurora shootings should remind employers to treat employees like human beings. After all, public school teachers are human beings too. They deserve to be treated with respect and compassion in the workplace just like the rest of us. They deserve to not suffer from workplace discrimination, overbearing school administrators and local politicians, and a lack of advancement opportunities. However there is one important distinction regarding public school teachers. They are government employees that work in the interests of the taxpayers. If you work against the the interests of the taxpayers, you should be fired just like when Reagan fired federal air traffic controllers.
West Virginia teachers are on strike for a second day and for the second time in a year (8 days originally for pay increases and health care cost caps) at the time of the writing of this post (the current strike is political, not work-related; it is regarding charter school legislation). Two days on strike leaving children not receiving an education and forcing frantic parents to forgo pay in order to rearrange their schedules to care for the children during work hours I think effectively makes the point that teachers are trying to make, whether it is for higher pay or improved work rules. But how about five days on strike? Two weeks? Two months? At some point there is a diminishing marginal utility of public school teachers expressing political displeasure at the expense of children and their parents–taxpayers. At that point, public school teachers should return to work or face termination.
In 2018, Oklahoma teachers struck for ten days for better wages, demanding they be paid by an increase on the levy against taxpayers. The teachers won their argument–a bill was passed to substantially increase salaries and to raise funds by raising taxes. Taxpayers voted their approval by later removing legislators who disagreed with the tax increases. This example seems to be one that worked as it should have within the system as it stands, although I think teachers were flirting with the limits of taxpayer patience. The standoff only ended with the imposition of a regressive vice and fuels tax, which impacted disproportionally lower wage earners–instead of the wealth redistributionist capital gains tax demanded by the teachers.
Arizona teachers also walked out in 2018 over salaries, in their case for 8 days. The state legislature approved $300M in additional school teacher salary spending, $600M the second year, and $900M the third year. No taxes were raised to pay for the budget measure, so it is not clear how it will be covered and than by reductions for other state workers and projects. A similar two-and-half week Colorado strike by public–also involving unfunded pension obligations–resulted in a similar outcome to Arizona’s.
Working for the US government, state government, or local government is a privilege. It comes with a sacred trust to work towards the aims of the taxpayers–the people–and not towards the goals of government employees. There are rewards for accepting this sacred trust that are not generally available in the commercial world. Many government employees can earn pensions, accumulate above market vacation and sick leave, be mostly insulated from layoffs (except in cases of tax revenue shortfalls), and work in a job that offers official capacity imbued with self actualization. Yes, the federal government occasionally furloughs employees with retroactive pay during political disputes, and local jurisdictions can go bankrupt. But as anyone can tell you–these are rare exceptions.
The case of private school teachers is different. They do not work for the taxpayers. So they are entitled to strike whenever they wish, and for any reason that they wish. If the marketplace disagrees with their reasoning, they will be replaced. If it agrees, striking private school teachers will win concessions.
So while we generally respect and admire the public school teachers that teach our children–the future of the country–this does not give those teachers a mandate. Taxpayers are the ultimate bosses of public school teachers, not the politicians, and it would behoove public school teachers unions and their members to remember that.
I invite public school teachers to do what workers in the commercial workspace do when they are working in jobs in which they find distasteful at the compensation levels that are offered. Move to another locale, change jobs, change careers, or return to school for new opportunities. After all, if state and local governments can’t pay enough money to hire teachers to teach their taxpayers children, they will be forced to raise pay and benefits. No strike required.