In Defense of Teacher Strikes

Some issues can only be resolved fairly in a public fight.


Maybe you believe that we should use standardized tests to evaluate teachers, or maybe you don't. Maybe you think Rahm Emanuel is the new hero of America's school reform movement, or maybe you think he's a foul-mouthed Napoleon bullying a bunch of lowly educators.

But if you at all support the right of government workers to unionize and bargain (that's a big if), you have to appreciate that what's unfolding right now in Chicago is a healthy part of the process -- a demonstration of why, in some ways, it's a very good thing that teachers have the right to strike.

Now for that "if." Even for liberals who support the idea of unions in the private sector, it can be hard to swallow the idea of letting government workers form a picket line. After all, the United Auto Workers and their kin exist to make sure employees get their cut of profits they help earn for a company. Government unions obviously aren't. They're around to ask for a larger share of our tax money and to make sure we don't mistreat the folks we hire to teach our kids, put out fires, and police our streets. A few other downsides: They don't have to worry about exorbitant contract demands putting the company they work for out of business; they bargain with the same politicians they then vote for at the polls; and, as you might have noticed, they get in the way of reforms.

These are all real concerns.

These are the kind of issues best resolved in a voting booth, and if nothing else, strikes are good at forcing a public debate that can eventually end at the polls.

But public sector unions also have redeeming qualities that arguably make them essential. For one, they've historically helped make government compensation more equal with the private sector, which is crucial if you believe in attracting talented people to public service. They create transparency by forcing state and local governments to negotiate contracts, which set concrete standards that allow the public to understand why specific workers are paid what they're paid. And, sometimes best of all, they get in the way of reforms. Politicians come up with awful ideas for how to make government run better, and it's important to have a conservative, countervailing force. Unions help make sure that local and state government's aren't run via management fad.

If you buy into that value proposition (and some smart people obviously don't), then you still have to carefully consider which rights public sector unions should and shouldn't have. Unlike most private sector workers, government employees handle services that are considered essential to all our lives. So the goal should be to give their unions enough power to represent them fairly at the bargaining table without handing them such immense leverage that tax payers are forced to give into their demands for fear of their health or safety.

That's why some occupations are treated as more essential than others. States generally don't allow police and firefighters to strike, for instance, because there would be deadly consequences. Teachers don't save lives, but they shape lives, and the consequences of letting them strike goes beyond mere inconvenience. Students' educations suffer when they miss out on school. Working parents are forced to find someone to take care of their children during the day, which for some families can be a significant burden.

It's worth asking ourselves, then, if there's a better alternative to letting teachers walk off the job. When police and firefighters run into contract disputes their concerns are usually put in front of an arbitrator who can render a binding decision. In theory, that gives everybody an impartial third party who can deliver a Solomonic ruling on issues such as wages and layoff rules. In reality, arbitrators often tilt their decisions for political reasons or because they want one of the parties to hire them again in the future.

But there's a deeper problem with the arbitrator model when it comes to teachers, which was pointed out to me by James Gross, a labor law professor at Cornell and an arbitrator himself. As the Chicago conflict has demonstrated, the big questions about public schools today aren't so much about pay or hours. They are philosophical issues about what makes a good teacher and how we should measure it. And as of now, even school reformists will admit the social science is still very much out on those issues. There isn't any one arbitrator who's qualified to unilaterally decide how heavily teacher evaluation systems should rely on test scores or if pay for performance is really reasonable, nor a single body of experts. They're too subjective.

In short, these are the kind of issues best resolved in a voting booth, and unlike quiet arbitrations, strikes are good at forcing a public debate that can eventually end at the polls. That, unto itself, gives unions reason to compromise these days. Because if they overplay their hand and voters start to resent them, they could face their own Scott Walker, and risk losing collective bargaining privileges altogether altogether.  It's messy, wart-covered process, but it's a middle ground that gives workers protection and keeps the entire controversy in the public view, where voters, like the parents of Chicago, can eventually pass judgment.