RALEIGH — Since 1959, North Carolina law has banned strikes by public sector workers and any contract negotiations, commonly referred to as collective bargaining, between state and local government and worker groups or unions.
The 1959 ban has become quite the topic over the last week as public school teachers around the state prepared to protest Monday what they say is a lack of support by the state legislature for public schools and for their profession.
After some talk of a “walk-out,” most of the plans called for what teachers described as a “walk-in,” with teachers wearing red and, prior to class, marching together through the front doors of school houses.
Plans at one Wake County school, involving parent volunteers watching over classrooms for a time during the school day, had state Senate leaders describing the event as something else: an illegal strike.
“Schools have a duty to educate and protect our children, not serve as marching grounds for political protests orchestrated by unions,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake, said in a joint statement last week.
On the morning of the event, Berger said that he appreciated the rights of teachers to exercise their First Amendment rights, but was unhappy with “the bully tactics of an organized union that puts kids safety at risk …”
By union, Berger and Hunt were referring to the N.C. Association of Educators, the largest teacher group in the state. It has historically has been a stalwart supporter of Democratic officeholders.
Berger’s office has pointed to a memo from the NCAE as evidence of its support for a strike. It reads, in part, that the group affirms “the desire, and right, of educators to use tactics like a walk-out or strike.”
But the same memo goes on to discourage a walk-out in favor of the walk-in tactics that occurred at schools on Monday.
By putting the focus on the NCAE, and whether anything that occurred is or isn’t a strike, legislative leaders appeared to be trying to divert attention from the larger issue of widespread teacher discontent with North Carolina’s current political leadership.
That discontent does not start and end with the NCAE and its members.
Focusing on the NCAE may convince some parts of the broader public that it is limited to or being fomented by the group. It won’t fool teachers.
NCAE officials, meanwhile, say the “walk-in” is meant to encourage discussion among teachers and parents about issues like spending cuts and lower teacher, and not be a political protest.
Got that? People dressed alike, marching en mass and upset about political decisions made by political institutions are not engaged in a political protest.
But peaceful political protests, generally speaking, are not against the law. As Berger notes, they are a protected constitutional activity.In North Carolina, there has been a lot of that activity lately.
No doubt, over the next year, there will be a lot more.
Capitol Press Association