This week in nearby West Virginia, striking teachers walked out of the classrooms en masse in a dispute over benefits and salary. As they marched on the state Capitol in protest, 277,000 public school students had no one to teach them.

According to the spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Education, public schools were closed in all of the state’s 55 counties.

Do teachers have the right to strike?

In a statement released earlier this week, the state Superintendent of Schools issued this warning:

“Work stoppages by public employees are not lawful in West Virginia and will have a negative impact on student instruction and classroom time . . . I encourage our educators to advocate for the benefits they deserve, but to seek courses of action that have the least possible disruption for our students.”

Those words could have a chilling effect on the teachers who staged the walkout, even though many parents and students supported their decision to strike.

The communications director for the West Virginia Education Association said that while benefits and pay were two primary motivations behind the strike, “This is a cumulative strike . . . the pay and the benefits have been problems for years, and there’s constantly been the promises of, ‘We’ll take care of this, we’ll take care of this.’ It’s finally gotten to the point where, you know, the promises aren’t enough.”

In general, a short strike designed to draw attention to pay inequities will likely not result in disciplinary action for those involved. However, a prolonged strike that keeps kids out of classrooms for weeks is much more likely to yield negative results for those protesting wages and benefits.

Furthermore, striking teachers in any state are less likely to face a licensure loss for going on strike than they are to be terminated for being in violation of their teaching contract, which mandates their being in the classrooms, able and available to teach. A similar scenario, albeit on the federal level, occurred in 1981 when then-President Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who ignored his order to end their strike and return to work.

Anyone considering walking a picket line should learn all about the legal consequences of their actions.

Source: The Washington Post, “‘They have had it’: West Virginia teachers strike, closing all public schools,” Sarah Larimer, Feb. 22, 2018