Over the last 36 hours, the decision of the Strongsville teachers union to strike has been the subject of torrid gossip, both at the regional and statewide level. Even the San Francisco Chronicle, thousands of miles away, reported on a local story that happens to be the latest instance of the most divisive issue facing public education today. The question of whether and how much we should support the right of teachers to collectively bargain is a problem that affects every school district during this time of budgetary cutbacks and mass layoffs, and it is one of particular importance to Cleveland Heights as the local teacher’s union prepares for negotiations on a new contract this spring. Personally, as a high school student at a private school, I feel that the right of workers to unionize at any level cannot be impeded for the sake of efficiency. Although feelings run high during strikes, like the picketing conducted by the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union during January of 1983, it is vital to remember that this is the process whereby we allow workers and management to agree to compensation that both sides believe is fair. We run the risk of sacrificing the quality of our schools and lowering the incentive for qualified people to teach if we remove the negotiating power of the union. For the future, it would be wise for Cleveland Heights to stand firm on the protection of the legitimacy of an educator’s union.
The Heights teacher contract expires this June, and President Ari Klein, serving since last April, will be leading the negotiations. Shortly before his election the CHTU soundly rejected Senate Bill 5, Governor Kasich’s attempt to end collective bargaining for public sector union workers, and was vindicated by the subsequent repeal of the bill during a referendum by Ohio voters in November 2011. And even last February, a CHTU online bulletin warned that: “attacks are not going to stop with the repeal of SB 5” and that “Any teacher who believes that the time to be complacent needs to be woken up quickly.” The current list of grievances on the CHTU website is extensive, and describes a “bargaining poll” that was completed by roughly half of the membership. As June approaches and with it the end of the current contract, it is likely that CHTU will continue to ramp up press releases about negotiations. Union leadership has not been hesitant to make strong political stands in the past, and even asked members to approve a petition calling for a drastic reconsideration to current public policy regarding “high-stakes” testing, which they claim is responsible for harming children. And with a 41-year CHTU streak of raising base and maximum salaries during successive contract negotiations, it seems unlikely that district teachers would be willing to face a wage freeze in the event that the administration refuses to raise salaries as a result of budget stagnation. So the question then becomes one of the right of the teachers to strike in such a circumstance, and whether or not it is appropriate to motion for curtailing the ability of teachers to collectively bargain should they “abuse” this power.
At this point in American history, eighty years after the Wagner Act permanently codified the right of workers to unionize, the discussion is no longer one of whether unions can exist. They have that right, and thus they also have the right to bargain, amicably or not, and to strike should the final outcome be unfavorable. The option to strike is what gives unions their backbone. Without it, they become powerless associations of like-minded professionals who will all be susceptible to the will of their superiors, however little stake those superiors may have in the compensation their workers receive. Because of the striking option, unions can arrive at a compromise that gives members the best possible pay and management the least possible expense. This means that businesses employing union workers have a workforce that is happier, more productive, and ultimately more profitable. While the goal of education is not profitability, the education system still demands competent and motivated teachers, and educators who are members of unions are more likely to be more capable of providing good instruction. So it is futile to discuss the idea of restricting collective bargaining in the workforce from a legal perspective, since a clear precedent has been set, and it is illogical, since unions create parity and efficiency. When the question is raised about whether we can remove the right to strike, we cannot. It is a fundamental part of the collective bargaining process, and without it unions lose the tool by which their members receive fair treatment. For Cleveland Heights, and for Ohio and the nation as a whole, we ought not think of the means by which we can reduce the rights of unions. Union members work in our factories, our offices and our classrooms, and to seize their rights is an assault on us all.