• 36°

Protest might be the best option for teachers

I love a good public protest. Thankfully, we live in a country where people have a constitutional right to gather, shout their opinions, petition their government and all the other wonderful things protected by the First Amendment.

In Mississippi, there has been talk of a protest by public school teachers who are upset about the recent $1,500 pay raise — and other Republican education policies.

The Mississippi Association of Educators, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, posted a survey Thursday online asking supporters if they’re interested in protests or an indefinite “walkout,” The Associated Press reported.

“The educators and the citizens are really upset,” President Joyce Helmick said. “You can tell they’re upset and they’re calling for action.”

The survey asks about support for possible actions including a rally at the state Capitol, after-work picketing, campaigning for candidates and boycotting business that donate to “anti-public education candidates,” AP reported. The survey also asks about a one-day sickout and whether teachers could “walk out on a specific day and refuse to return for an indefinite amount of time.” That sounds like a strike.

Teacher strikes are rare in Mississippi for one reason — they are outlawed. Legislators made strikes illegal after the state’s only significant strike occurred in 1985.

Legislators weren’t playing around when they wrote those laws. “Teacher groups can be fined $20,000 a day for disobeying a court order against a walkout. Striking teachers are supposed to permanently be barred from public school teaching unless a court reinstates them because of ‘public necessity.’ Local school boards are barred from closing schools during a strike ‘as long as practicable’ and are required to report names of strikers to the attorney general. For violations, school board members can be convicted of misdemeanors and fined up to $250 a day,” AP wrote.

Those are serious consequences that have been successful in keeping teachers in classrooms and off picket lines. But there seems to be a growing chorus of supporters who think teachers should be able to strike. Teacher strikes have become more common across the nation after striking educators got what they wanted — more pay.

In 2018, 485,000 workers participated in what the Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies as a “major work stoppage.” It was the first major increase in three decades. The majority of those — 379,000 — were teachers and other education workers.

Many of those striking workers did so in violation of state laws just like Mississippi’s. Some got higher pay as a result.

“One reason we’ve seen large numbers of teachers involved in strikes is that they occurred in states like West Virginia, Kentucky or Oklahoma, where teachers lack the right to bargain collectively and could only negotiate with the Legislature,” said William P. Jones, a labor historian at the University of Minnesota. “Even in places where unions are very weak, strikes can be effective in affecting policy.”

The 13,500-member Mississippi Professional Educators, the largest teachers’ group in the state, said its members are unhappy with the $1,500 raise and the “sneaky and underhanded” insertion of $2 million  to subsidize private school tuition for special education students

“I have never seen our members as engaged and frustrated,” executive director Kelly Riley said.

Riley said any illegal activity like striking will likely be met with a strong response from the state. She said she supports legal protest actions, and said her members will hold lawmakers accountable in August or November at the ballot box.

Protests are one thing; strikes are another. And while teachers can rightly argue that strikes should not be illegal in Mississippi, they currently are. Educators would risk a lot in order to strike, and my guess is most are not willing to put their paychecks on the line. Who could blame them?

They might win the hearts and minds of America once the national media points its cameras their way, but that won’t pay the light bill or buy groceries.

The best way to deal with the issue is likely through legal protests and smart voting. If lawmakers refuse to give teachers a meaningful pay raise, find a candidate who will, though that is easier said than done. Too often, incumbents face few serious challengers.

A show of force at the Capitol might get lawmakers’ attention, though. It would be hard to ignore thousands of protesting teachers holding signs demanding better pay. However they choose to make their voices heard, they have my support.

Our city, county, state and nation will only be as strong as our public education system. Teachers do more to shape the future of this state and nation than any other profession, and they deserve compensation that reflects that. Lawmakers who use limited funding as an excuse for low wages must think we are idiots. We see where the money goes, and not enough of it is going to public school education.

Email publisher Luke Horton at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.