Today's good news is that the South Burlington Education Association has been able to reach an agreement with the school district to end their strike and return to the important work of educating South Burlington's students.
The bad news is that, as it happens pretty much every time workers stand up for themselves, we are hearing attacks on workers' right to withhold their services and take action to protect their rights and their livelihoods. Ronald Reagan was wrong when he busted the air traffic controllers' union and hired scabs, and Peter Shumlin is wrong when he says teachers should not be allowed to strike.
Some facts might be in order to get past the cries that a five-day strike in one school district shows that the sky is falling. Vermont has two hundred fifty public schools, sixty-two supervisory unions, and three hundred sixty-two school districts. Out of all those schools and districts, in the last forty years or so we've had about twenty-seven teachers' strikes, most lasting just a few days, although some have been longer.
In all the rest, teachers and management have been able to reach agreement without a strike, and experience has shown that a strike is the last resort. In South Burlington, negotiations started last November, the contract expired on June 30, and yet the teachers went back to school and worked without a contract until last week. In Bennington and Rutland Southwest the teachers worked for 500 days without a contract to try to avoid a strike.
So why do teachers need the right to strike? It's pretty simple, really: without the ability to strike management has no incentive to negotiate in good faith. Again, take the South Burlington strike as an example. The strike ended after the parties agreed to mediation, and the work of the negotiators and the mediator Friday and Saturday produced an agreement. You probably knew that already, but did you know that the teachers have been calling for mediation for weeks, including their request for mediation on October 6, a week before the strike deadline?
There is nothing to prevent school districts from agreeing to mediation before forcing the teachers out, but for some reason the management in South Burlington wasn't interested until the teachers were out on the street. Somehow, though, anti-labor forces want to blame the teachers, and not the administration, for the stoppage.
Governor Shumlin has proposed binding arbitration as an alternative to teachers' strikes, but here's something else you probably didn't know: when binding arbitration has been proposed in the legislature, the Vermont NEA has supported it and the school boards have blocked it. As VPR reported Thursday, quoting NEA spokesman Darren Allen:
Despite support from teachers and the governor, the Legislature hasn’t taken up the issue. When it comes up, Allen said, “every single time, every single time, the school boards and the school boards association have adamantly opposed it.”
There is no doubt that on those rare occasions when Vermont teachers are forced to strike, it produces disruption to the schools and the communities they serve. Eventually, though, the schools reopen, the teachers return to the important work that they do, and the instructional days are made up, The lasting harm, when it does come, is caused not by the school days missed or vacations shortened, it comes when management splits the community by attacking the very idea that teachers have a legitimate right to join together and negotiate for their wages, hours, and working conditions, as happened in Hinesburg in 1985.
We don't know the terms of the new South Burlington contract yet, but we do know that it is a contract that the school board calculated the town could afford. South Burlington is recognized for the high quality of its public schools, and it's the teachers who are producing results in those schools. They deserve a fair contract, and they deserve the right to fight for their interests.