As teacher strikes have spread across the country, several factors would determine if Indiana would follow, experts and union leaders say.
Although state labor laws are written to deter strikes, the state is facing pressing issues in education including teacher shortages, dropping pay and a shift toward using property tax referendums to shore up local budgets. Teacher unions are watching strikes in other states, but have no definite plans and will watch how lawmakers address funding during the 2019 legislative session, they said
Although teachers cannot strike under Indiana labor laws, there would be little the state could do to stop a large-scale one, such as in Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kentucky, said Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, a labor law expert at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law at Indiana University in Bloomington.
Practically speaking, lawmakers and schools understood it would be too hard to fire and replace so many educators on short notice, he said.
“All of those states where they have had strikes, it’s also illegal,” he said. “If conditions get bad enough in a workplace, they will do it, even though they might lose their jobs.”
At issue is a combination of stagnant wages, rising insurance costs and shrinking resources, he said.
Although it’s not known if a strike could happen here, there are important differences to note between those states and Indiana, he said.
Indiana ranks 31st, with average teacher pay around $50,000, according to the National Education Association. In West Virginia and Oklahoma, average salaries are $45,000, ranking 48th and 49th nationally. There, lawmakers have had a bigger role in determining how salaries are funded, he said.
“Because we have had some collective bargaining in this state is one reason we are not in as bad a situation as Oklahoma and West Virginia,” Dau-Schmidt said.
Oklahoma labor leaders called off their multi-day strike recently after Republican leaders said they will not provide any more new revenue for public schools.
Last month, Oklahoma’s Republican-controlled Legislature approved a series of tax hikes to fund a $6,100 average teacher pay raise and more funding for schools, but teachers walked out anyway, concerned it was not enough.
In Lake and Porter counties, teacher salaries at the eight largest districts cover a wide range. Portage Township teachers on average make roughly $42,000 while Gary teachers average roughly $56,000, according to Indiana Education Relations Board for 2016-17.
It’s hard to predict what action lawmakers in Indianapolis would take next session, Dau-Schmidt said.
“They might look at this and say they want to head off any trouble,” Dau-Schmidt said. “It would be rational to do that.”
McCormick: Teacher pay raise needed
Earlier this month, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, a Republican, told the Post-Tribune she would favor using state funds to boost teacher pay locally — 3 percent could be an acceptable compromise, she said.
A lack of raises over time is feeding into the state’s teacher shortage, McCormick said.
Average teacher pay in Indiana dropped by 15 percent between 2000 and 2017 — to $50,554 in 2016-17 from $59,986 in 1999-2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
It is the highest percentage plunge nationally, according to the organization, a federal entity that collects and crunches data for the U.S. Department of Education.
When asked if Gov. Eric Holcomb supported McCormick’s stance for boosting teacher pay, spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson said the governor has not yet determined his budget priorities for 2019.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., on his weekly radio show Friday, called for lawmakers to help local districts fund a 10-percent teacher salary raise.
McDermott said the money should come from the state’s nearly $2 billion rainy day fund. His daughter is a high school English teacher at the Hammond Academy of Science and Technology, a local charter school.
“It’s a joke. When you hear people ask why you can’t get quality teachers anymore, a lot of them opt out” to get higher-paying jobs, he said. “It’s not difficult to figure out why we can’t get college graduates to become teachers.”
“I think a 10 percent pay hike is totally doable,” he said. “We can afford it right now, the will to do it isn’t there.”
Unions watching strikes
Since strikes began in others states, Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith said she has been receiving one or two calls and emails per day.
It’s not enough to gauge its 40,000 members, she said.
“We don’t really know what our members even want yet,” Meredith said. “I don’t think they know what they want.”
The ISTA will first look to next year’s budget session in Indianapolis, she said.
Her members would support using state funding to boost teacher pay “if it were done in an equitable way,” Meredith said.
About 400 ISTA members were registered for its annual assembly this weekend where a labor representative from West Virginia was expected to share experiences.
“It’s not about their pay raise,” Meredith said. “They are concerned they have textbooks that are old, chairs not safe to sit in.”
Any collective action would have to take place when lawmakers were in session, said Gary Teachers Union head GlenEva Dunham, who is also statewide president for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
“When we speak, we speak for kids,” she said.
Any action would have to set out a common list of demands by both AFT and ISTA — the state’s two main teacher unions, she said. Common issues could be working conditions, stagnant wages, increased insurance costs.
Gary teachers went on a nearly two-week strike in August 2006 over wage increases, rising health insurance and a one-hour lunch that administrators wanted to cut in half. The last teachers’ strike before that was in 1984.
With $100 million in debt, Gary teachers haven’t received a raise in 11 years, she said.
Our “working conditions are the children’s working conditions,” Dunham said. “If the boiler is broken, if I’m cold, they are cold.”
Hammond Federation of Teachers head Patrick O’Rourke said he was in favor of the strikes and watched as activism has spread recently across the country.
“There’s a movement. It’s sort of like a ‘Me Too’ movement,” he said, “sort of like the students that are protesting violence in schools.
“I don’t know what it is … there’s something going on in America that is lending itself to some serious protests,” he said. “It wouldn’t be a matter of protesting and walking away. It will be a matter of protesting and seeing results.”
The Associated Press contributed.