This week, one of the country’s most powerful national teachers’ union announced that its leadership would support "safety strikes" if schools were to reopen without appropriate safety measures in place. The American Federation of Teachers said the final decision would fall on local unions and should be used as a last resort.
Angela Cornell, professor of law and director of the Labor Law Clinic at Cornell University’s Law School, says that ensuring workplace health and safety is one of the unions most important goals – especially as coronavirus cases continue to spike across the country.
“Teachers’ unions are understandably concerned about the health and safety of their members (and their students) as increasing pressure is mounted by the Trump administration to force them to return to the classroom this fall—even if there are not sufficient safeguards in place.
“The American Federation of Teachers has just provided local teachers’ unions with the authorization to strike should other measures not be effective at pressuring school boards to implement sufficient safeguards to reduce the risk of returning to the classroom. Few things are as important to fight for as workplace health and safety—especially in this context. This is one of the most important roles unions play in the workplace.
“The wave of teacher strikes that started in 2018 illustrated how effective collective action can be. Tangible workplace gains were made across the country with high levels of community support. The decision to strike will be made at the local level, and only as a last resort. The rising number of COVID-19 cases should concern anyone returning to work with similar exposure. Children spread the disease as much as adults according to new research. And, we are seeing a sharp increase in child COVID-19 cases.
“Eighteen states are setting new records for the virus, some of which alone have more confirmed cases per capita than any other country of the world. The abysmal public health response has contributed to the tragic loss of life, which now exceeds 150,000 nationwide. For those who survive, sizeable numbers will have long-term damage to their hearts. Standing up for coherent and effective safety protocols in our public schools is crucially important for our teachers, staff and students as well as broader communities—even if it takes having to strike.”