Detroit teacher strike hints at growing distrust of reform

School walkouts, on the wane since the 1970s, may make a comeback.

Teacher strikes used to be an all-too-common part of America's back-to-school routine - as common as fall football tryouts and blowout sales on thin-wale corduroy pants.

Not anymore.

Even with this week's walkout by 7,200 Detroit teachers, such strikes are fewer and farther between in the 1990s. It's a change with many causes. Some states have outlawed strikes, and many unions - surrounded by vouchers, charter schools, and other reforms - don't want to be seen as blocking progress.

It's all a sign of the education times.

Yet so too may be the Detroit strike, which entered its third day yesterday. This trendsetting city recently gave the mayor control of its struggling schools, and many teachers mistrust the man he put in charge of these city schools. He's bent on business-style reforms and breaking unions, they say.

Indeed, in this era of top-down takeovers, too many changes that raise teacher ire could spark a resurgence in striking.

After hitting a peak in the mid-1970s, "the need to strike was defused" by new laws, better negotiating, and more-cautious unions, says Chris Pipho at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. But today's reforms can outrage teachers. "The generic principle is that they see themselves losing control," he says.

But they'd have to strike in spades to get back to 1960s and '70s levels.

In 1968, for instance, 55,000 New York City teachers were out for 36 days. And strike-prone states like Pennsylvania might have 30 districts on the picket lines at once.

Much of the sparring was over establishing rules for collective bargaining, a new concept for teachers back then. With rules established, striking waned. But the public also came to resent union members for leaving America's kids untended and untaught while they sought higher pay. So unions were forced to back off.

Indeed, depending whom you talk to, today's unions are either like groggy bears backed into a corner, or powerful lions, agile enough to keep up with changing times.

In truth, they may be a bit of both, experts say.

They've been forced to rethink their traditional opposition to reform proposals such as charter schools. The public likes some of these ideas too much.

But unions still can't abide vouchers - which let parents spend public money at private schools - and they've put their hope in the courts. (Last month, a federal district judge suspended Cleveland's voucher program, a move that pleased unions.)

They do have their own ideas for reform - including reducing class sizes and instituting "peer review" to weed out bad teachers.

But critics say those are smoke screens aimed at saving the status quo. "Unions are talking in one direction" - reform - "and acting in another," says Dave Deschryver, policy director at the antiunion Center for Education Reform in Washington. "And they're finding themselves in court," which is "a last stand."

Still, unions are gaining members. And today's shrink-wrap-tight labor market - including the nationwide teacher shortage - bolsters their power.

"This is a booming economy. Other districts would be happy to hire them," says Michael Belzer of Detroit's strikers. He's a union-sympathetic researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

"Detroit is no teachers' paradise," he adds. "And maybe some of these teachers who live in the snow would like to move to California," where the shortage is especially acute.

In Detroit, teachers put up with classes as big as 41 students, decrepit buildings, and even vandalism of their cars. But in contract talks, school officials are pushing them to accept things such as "merit pay," which ties salary increases to improving test scores.

Teachers retort that it's impossible to boost scores when conditions are so poor. They say class sizes must be reduced.

Support for strikers from the national office is strong. American Federation of Teachers president Sandra Feldman is expected on the picket line in Detroit today. But there may also be an ulterior motive aimed at protecting the union's image - a motive that hints at the defensive position unions are in today.

They want to "get a settlement as quickly as possible so that negative publicity doesn't happen," says Rollie Hopgood, head of the Michigan Federation of Teachers in Detroit.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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