‘Put up or shut up’: Mississippi teachers mull strike in wake of ‘insulting’ pay raise, secretive voucher funding move

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Teachers hold a rally outside the Senate Chambers in the West Virginia Capitol Monday, March. 5, 2018 in Charleston, W.V. Hundreds of teachers from 55 counties are on strike for pay raises and better health benefits. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

Lawmakers wrapped up the 2019 legislative session with a $1,500 pay raise for public school teachers, but many are so outraged by the amount that they’re considering a strike — something Mississippi law expressly forbids.

Last week, educators and advocates called the amount of the pay increase an insulting gesture from lawmakers in an election year. First-year public school teachers with a bachelor’s degree earn $34,390 without any district supplements, and the statewide average salary was $44,926, during 2017-18 school year. The anger amongst some educators and advocacy organizations intensified once it became public knowledge that Republican leaders slipped $2 million in a non-education budget bill for a program similar to vouchers, which use public funds to send special needs children to private schools.

“We’re not getting paid what we’re worth. We don’t just pass out worksheets … and write detention slips. We do so much of what it takes to build up responsible citizens,” said Jennifer Bradford, a middle school English teacher in the Jackson County School District. “My job is to make sure I give 100 percent to that child’s future and it’s frustrating that they don’t appreciate that.”

Meanwhile, on a Facebook page called Pay Raise for Mississippi Teachersdebate about a potential strike has stirred under a post with more than 280 comments. 

“We have nearly 40,000 followers of this page. It is time we discuss what it will take to organize a teacher strike,” a March 30 post reads. “It’s time to put up or shut up.”

It’s unclear who the administrators are, but the group declined to comment when Mississippi Today reached out. The group has not publicly stated when a strike may occur or what their goals are.

“It is clear the teachers are ready to do SOMETHING, but there is not clear consensus on what that will be. We have to find something that the largest number of us will participate in, so we can have the greatest impact,” a separate April 2 post reads.

But Bradford, the eighth grade English teacher, said she doesn’t think a strike will happen because of the laid-back nature of Mississippians.

“Our mentality is to get along and it’s like we can’t afford to strike. We don’t have enough money to strike,” she said.

In a statement, Mississippi Association of Educators president Joyce Helmick said it is not a surprise the conversations are taking place. Many are upset that their voices were left out of the legislative process as lawmakers worked out an amount for a teacher pay raise.

“There has been no transparency, no responsiveness and no accountability,” Helmick said. “Educators are furious and they have every right to be.”

The final $1,500 pay raise amount was not made public until a conference report was filed late in the evening on one of the final days of the session, and the public was not allowed in those meetings where lawmakers came to that figure.

“When you’ve approached this process in earnest year-in, year-out and been ignored or given a symbolic gesture simply intended to pacify you, what else is there to do?” Helmick said.

Mississippi teachers went on strike for the first and only time in 1985 during Democrat Gov. William Allain’s tenure. Teachers participated in walkouts and picketing to advocate for a $3,500 raise, the New York Times reported at the time. The wildcat strike, which ended with more than 9,000 teachers walking off the job in March 1985, resulted in a $4,400 pay raise granted by the state Legislature, according to Education Week.

Though the strike yielded results, it came with harsh consequences — threats of fines and jail time.

Today, the Mississippi state law specifically forbids teachers from striking. A strike is defined in statute as “a concerted failure to report for duty, a willful absence from one’s position, the stoppage of work, a deliberate slowing down of work, or the withholding, in whole or in part, of the full, faithful and proper performance of the duties of employment, for the purpose of inducing, influencing or coercing a change in the conditions, compensation, rights, privileges or obligations of public employment.”

This applies to classroom teachers, program supervisors, librarians, guidance personnel, audiovisual personnel and vocational directors, the statute states.

Teachers and teacher organizations are also prohibited from encouraging a strike either.

If a strike were to occur, the state law says, school boards are required to “continue school operations as long as practicable” and submit the names of those who do not come to school to the state attorney general’s office. School board members or administrators who fail to do this will be found guilty of a misdemeanor and fined $100-$250 for every day they fail to report.

The code states that those who strike will be fired and cannot work as a teacher in any public school district in the state again “unless the court first finds a public necessity therefor.”

Once a strike begins, affected school districts can file for an injunction in Hinds County Chancery Court to stop it. Teacher unions found violating the injunction — not standing down — will be fined up to $20,000 per day, according to code.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat running for governor this year, told Mississippi Today: “We can’t opine on a statute, nor can we speak about something that hasn’t taken place.”

Matthew Steffey, a law professor at Mississippi College, said if teachers were to violate the law, including going on strike, they would not be protected.

“Teachers do not have a constitutional right to strike,” Steffey said. He added that if teachers want legal protection they have to claim a basis for that protection, and “their constitutional rights don’t include breaching their employment contract.”

“They’ll walk off the job, get disciplined or fired, and they’ll say ‘you can’t do that’ … well I can say you didn’t show up for work … not showing up for work is grounds for consequences,” Steffey said.

This Feb. 21, 2019 file photo shows picket signs as teachers, students and supporters rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of City Hall in Oakland, Calif.

The Mississippi Association of Educators, the local affiliate of the National Education Association, endorsed the 1985 strike after it began and as a result 22 members of the executive board were fined $250 and given a two-day jail sentence. According to archived Clarion Ledger articles from the time, board members did not serve time in jail because they complied with the sentencing chancellor’s injunction to prohibit strikes.

A separate state law makes it difficult to organize unions, stating that it is “unlawful” for superintendents, principals and licensed employees to have their union dues deducted directly from their salary, meaning they must pay them manually.

The Mississippi strike debate comes on the heels of several states’ teachers walking off the job in recent years over working conditions.  

Last spring, West Virginia teachers walked out of the classroom for a nearly two-week strike that ended after the governor approved a five percent pay raise. It is also illegal to strike in West Virginia, but teachers had the support of their local administrators. Every school district closed school for seven days, according to a story the Medill News Service published. This classified the walkouts as a “work action” and not a strike, and the lost school days were made up at the end of the school year.

A 2014 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research states it is legal for teachers to strike in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Vermont. Only three states — South Carolina, Utah and Wyoming — have no statute on the books determining the legality of teacher strikes. All others, including Mississippi, have laws that state it is illegal for teachers to strike.