Sunday, May 07, 2006

Wonkitorial: Sickout!

In order to draw the public's attention to the slow pace of contract negotiations, about 50% of the teachers in two Brighton, Michigan middle schools called in sick Friday:
District officials closed two middle schools this morning after about 50 percent of the teachers called in shortly before classes were to begin, saying they were unable to come to work.

That left officials scrambling to handle the 1,800 kids arriving at Maltby and Scranton middle schools while trying to contact parents. Officials would not send the kids home on foot or by district bus because some are as young as 11 years old.

"We did not have any notification," said Brighton Area Schools Superintendent John Hansen. "I want to apologize to our parents and to assure them we will give them all the notice we get."

The district has been in negotiations this school year with the teacher's union, and does not yet have a contract. Hansen said he did not know if that played into the 30 or so teachers in each of the middle schools calling off work, but said all district parents should plan as if this could happen again.

"We should be on alert," he said. "Parents should make back-up plans."

By lunchtime today Hansen expected there to be less than 50 kids at each school whose parents were not able to pick them up due to work or other obligations. He said the children will stay in school until someone can get them.

"The kids will be safe with us like it was a normal school day," he said.

Hansen has not yet spoken with union officials about the teachers.
At first glance, what the teachers did might appear to be a highly effective method of applying pressure on the district at the bargaining table.

Usually, the opposite is true. Teacher "sickouts" and the withholding of "extras" such as helping students after school tends, in the long run, to be counterproductive to the teachers' efforts.

Certainly, the sickout by the teachers in Brighton got the community's attention. But not necessarily the kind of attention that would be helpful to the teachers' cause.

The goal of any job-action ought to be the building of community support for the teachers' position. When the community gets involved on one side or another, things begin to happen.

And when the teachers have the community on their side, their position is substantially strengthened. There is, of course, a condition.

The teachers' hand is strengthened as long as what the teachers are seeking is perceived by the public to be fair.

By involving the children in their protests, the Brighten teachers are running a very serious risk of alienating the very people whose support they so vitally need. When parents believe that their kids have become the unwitting pawns in the struggle between teachers and their employers, the risk of an anti-teacher backlash greatly increases.

And when the public is on the side of the district, the board's position invariably hardens, resulting in an even more contentious and drawn-out process as the district's administration attempts to bring its teachers to heel.

There are things that can be done by teachers and their supporters to increase the community's awareness of the teachers' plight: letters to the local paper, informational picketing of school sites and district offices, starting a website, encouraging people to go and speak at the next school board meeting, and the distribution of flyers and other informational material to the public in places such as shopping malls and supermarkets.

We think it's best to leave the children out of it.
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