Why Teacher Strikes Aren't What They Used To Be As school gets under way, something is missing: the sound of teachers picketing. Big urban strikes that used to interrupt the school year are pretty much relics of the past. That's because big cities are taking education more seriously, and teachers unions are going into negotiations looking for more than dollars — they have become part of the reform effort.
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Why Teacher Strikes Aren't What They Used To Be

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Why Teacher Strikes Aren't What They Used To Be

Why Teacher Strikes Aren't What They Used To Be

Why Teacher Strikes Aren't What They Used To Be

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As school gets under way, something is missing: the sound of teachers picketing. Big urban strikes that used to interrupt the school year are pretty much relics of the past. That's because big cities are taking education more seriously, and teachers unions are going into negotiations looking for more than dollars — they have become part of the reform effort.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It used to be that the start of the school year was accompanied by this sound.

Unidentified Woman: What do you want?

Unidentified Group: Contracts.

Unidentified Woman: When do you want it?

Unidentified Group: Now.

Unidentified Woman: No contract.

Unidentified Group: No work.

Unidentified Woman: No contract.

Unidentified Group: No work.

INSKEEP: That's the sound of a teacher's strike, like that one nine years ago in Detroit, which used to shut down big urban districts on a regular basis. NPR's Larry Abramson reports on why major strikes have largely faded.

LARRY ABRAMSON: In an era when organized labor is in decline, teachers are still highly organized, and that used to keep education reporters pretty busy, such as NPR's Judi Moore Smith, who filed this report in the fall of 1987.

JUDI MOORE SMITH: So far this year, there are teacher strikes in six states. That means there's no school for nearly 300,000 students.

ABRAMSON: This year, the two national teachers' unions say they are aware of no strikes underway right now. There are lots of reasons why. Professor Kenneth Wong at Brown University says Chicago lost its role as strike central when Mayor Richard Daley took control of the schools in 1995.

Professor KENNETH WONG (Brown University): Prior to Mayor Daley took over the school system, there were nine major strikes. So one can say that there seems to be some correlation between mayoral involvement and the lack of teacher strikes.

ABRAMSON: Wong says that in cities like Boston, New York and Chicago, mayoral control helped break open the wage disputes that often stymied elected school boards.

Prof. WONG: The mayor have resources that go beyond the city school budget to actually leverage to support what's going on inside a school.

ABRAMSON: Mayors and their hand-picked education czars are responding to a growing sense among voters that education is different from garbage collection or other city services. Schools are now seen as key to a health economy, a function too important to be disrupted.

Teachers have been quick to take advantage of their changing role. Dal Lawrence was head of the Toledo Federation of Teachers from 1966 to '96 and led his share of strikes. He says school administrators long refused to give teachers any say over instruction.

Mr. DAL LAWRENCE (Former Head of Toledo Federation of Teachers): We were right on the front line, and yet we had very little to say about the issues that we knew if we could negotiate would improve the student responses.

ABRAMSON: Lawrence says those early strikes were a strike for self-respect and led to jail for some leaders who flouted laws against strikes. Now, he says, teachers have largely won the right to be treated as professionals, so strikes are seldom necessary.

One man can claim much of the credit for leading teachers into this new role, the late Al Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers for many decades.

Mr. RICHARD KAHLENBERG (Author, "Tough Liberal"): This was a guy who had gone to jail for them on a couple of instances after leading illegal strikes.

ABRAMSON: Richard Kahlenberg is the author of a biography of Shanker called "Tough Liberal."

Mr. KAHLENBERG: He had credibility with teachers that allowed him to push some of the professional issues that teachers knew, at the end of the day, that he was going to look out for their interests.

ABRAMSON: But as teachers get a bigger role in deciding the course of education, they're encountering new challenges that could lead to strikes in the future. More and more unions are embracing incentive pay systems, which raise pay in exchange for improving student performance. The Denver union helped design ProComp, the revolutionary pay system there. Earlier this year, management and labor sat down to revise that system. When talks didn't go well, the union threatened to strike. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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