Why do teachers go on strike?

On October 17th the main teaching unions in England have organised a day of strikes (also known as industrial action, or walkouts) that will shut most schools and cause a good deal of disruption to the daily routines of millions of people across the country. However, this week alone teacher strikes have also been witnessed in Spain, Chile, Brazil, Bangladesh and Tunisia. This past month or so moreover there have been strikes in Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Washington State and New York State, USA, Australia, Greece, Mexico, Colombia, Ireland, Israel, Oman and Uganda. The months prior have also seen strikes globally.


The stated reasons for strike action in these few weeks alone vary as much as the countries that suffer them. There are demands for improved pay and conditions and protection of current or previously agreed pension rights (England, Chile, Washington State, New York State, Pennsylvania), calls for promised pay hikes to be implemented (Uganda) and for permanent contracts and associated rights (Tunisia). There have been complaints about excessive teaching hours and administrative chores (England, Oman, Ireland, Washington State), unpaid wages (Colombia), larger class sizes (Chile, Oman), cuts to special programmes and support services (Australia), and job losses (Greece). There have been demands for job appointments (Bangladesh) and the right to unionise (Oman), actions to protect language rights (Spain), and protests about parental violence (Israel), forced transfers (Greece), weakening of unions, teacher performance evaluations, and the end to the practice of selling or bequeathing teaching positions (Mexico), and employee surveillance (Washington State).

There is then a collection of grievances ranging from policy to pay. To better understand the nature of teacher strikes, we wondered if there wasn’t something underlying all these declared reasons, however. We wonder if there wasn’t something at the core of these strikes that ultimately could explain why these educators of various nationalities and in various countries would wish to down tools and strike, despite knowing the disruption that it would cause.

As we see it, there is perhaps one thing that might link these strikes. What perhaps links these disparate strike actions is that because employment, workplace and policy grievances cannot be taken up with the employer directly, as is the case commonly with a business, teachers have no other choice but to strike. In a business, if you have a grievance you can usually take it up with the person who provides you a salary, or at least who has been given the authority over such things (e.g. manager). In teaching, however, the person who pays your wages is off-site and uncontactable. There are school managers and so on but they do not have control over how much you are paid, or if you are paid, more importantly. How then can teachers air their grievances if they cannot remonstrate with the person who pays them and is responsible for their working conditions and the policies and initiatives by which they work? It is then this peculiar characteristic of a public education system, where the person responsible for how and what you are paid and for the work you do is missing, that would seem to leave no other option open but to strike.

In England, recent government performance-management changes to teacher pay and conditions have awarded schools in theory at least the ‘flexibility’ (power) to determine salaries based on ‘performance’. Interestingly, what this does is make the school boss (i.e. head or principal) at least in some way responsible for increasing wages or not.

It might be hoped that this will mean strikes if they happen at all will be less national, more local, indeed, more school-based in future. If heads decide to pay less than teachers think they are due, then teachers can take this up with heads directly on-site. Strikes of the kind described above would then perhaps be averted.

It appears a forlorn hope to think that teacher strikes will disappear completely, however, as fundamentally in democracies it is still typically the public through its local or national government representatives who pay teachers, and similarly in non-democracies it is the government who ultimately pays teachers. As was shown above, moreover, teacher strikes are not by any means solely about pay, and teachers strike about a myriad of other things unrelated to pay (e.g. policy). It then follows that if the teaching profession is seriously challenged in some way, the comeback will be publicly demonstrated, regardless of idealistic performance management changes to pay awards, for example.

Nobody likes the disruption to daily life and of course to education that strikes create, yet does the argument so far mean that teacher strikes and their disruption are inevitable? Perhaps not, but it means governments might look to keep teachers on their side if they wish to avoid the type of industrial action witnessed globally these past few weeks and months. Governments should know of the peculiar lack of clear lines of communication and suitable means of redress at the heart of education systems and they should therefore be doing what they can to overcome it. Historically, however, governments have not been known to do this well, and at times the more ideological politicians have even appeared to see conflict rather than communication with teachers as a badge of honour.

We then perhaps have come to the true reason for teacher strikes: a failure of government.

It has long been thought that a productive and successful society is a harmonious one. Harmony means to keep all sections of society on side. This ought then to be the target of every government, and that they do not achieve it, and teachers, for example, go out on strike, is perhaps a sign that governments, not teachers, are to blame for industrial action.

If governments really want teacher strikes to end, in other words, governments need to keep teachers happy.

How hard can that be?

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