Charlottesville High School teachers called out of work after student violence. Was it a strike? | #schoolsaftey

On the Friday prior to Thanksgiving, 27 teachers at Charlottesville High School called out of work in response to a series of violent student brawls.

While Charlottesville City Schools said the number of absences is “not much higher than it would be for a regular Friday,” the division ultimately closed the school through the Thanksgiving holiday and issued a statement saying staff would “continue planning for a ‘reset’ of school policies, procedures, and culture so that we can return to our core purpose — offering a safe learning environment in which our students will grow and thrive.”

While the episode bears many significant similarities to a strike, officials have been reluctant to identify it as such — possibly because Virginia law, like that in many other states, calls for the termination of any public employee who goes on strike.

Ann Hodges, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said she’s uncertain if the teachers’ act is a violation of state law given questions surrounding how coordinated the callouts were.

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“If in fact it was coordinated, it might be interpreted to be a strike,” said Hodges. “On the other hand, you could argue that’s really not a strike. Generally a strike is considered withholding of labor, and I think you could argue that the teachers are not withholding their labor. … They are not refusing when they are supposed to work. They are taking their [leave] days that they are entitled to by virtue of their employment.”

Virginia law

Virginia state law has forbidden public employees from going on strike at least as far back as 1946, when a wave of worker dissatisfaction over working conditions and wages swept the nation.

That year, according to Richmond Times-Dispatch reports, Virginia Gov. William Tuck condemned the prospect of public sector unionization, telling the General Assembly that public worker strikes would “jeopardize the safety and welfare of the people.”

“Such an intolerable situation is utterly incompatible with sound and orderly government,” the Times-Dispatch quoted Tuck as saying.

During the same session, the General Assembly passed legislation known as the Moncure-Locher bill that forbid any public employee who participated in a strike from working for state or local government for five years. An earlier version would have forbidden public employment indefinitely.

Lawmakers also passed a joint resolution declaring it against public policy for public employee organizations to affiliate with labor unions.

Today, state law continues to prohibit public employees from striking and makes them ineligible to work in any public position for up to a year if they do so.

Any employee who “strikes or willfully refuses to perform the duties of his employment shall, by such action, be deemed to have terminated his employment,” the Code of Virginia states.

Virginia isn’t alone in having such a statute on its books: Only a handful of states give teachers the right to strike, according to a 2012 Stateline report. Currently, 37 states prohibit teacher strikes, Education Week reports.

In 2020, a Democratic-controlled General Assembly passed laws giving local governments the ability to allow collective bargaining by public employees, including teachers.

News reports show that as far back as 1969, the Virginia Education Association was lobbying for collective bargaining rights for teachers, with then-VEA President Dan Rapier saying they would help prevent teacher strikes.

The final version of the 2020 law specifically said the state’s prohibition on public employee strikes remains in force after concerns raised by groups including the Virginia School Boards Association.

During debates on the 2020 legislation, VSBA lobbyist Stacy Haney contended an original version of the bill “bill arguably does allow teachers to strike. It doesn’t allow employees of counties, cities or towns to strike, but … school board employees are carved out.” Lawmakers subsequently added language clarifying the strike prohibition.

In 2021, former Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, proposed a bill that would have allowed teachers to strike, but it died in committee without being voted on.

Strike or no?

Whether the Charlottesville callout would be considered a strike under state law remains uncertain.

The Office of the Attorney General declined to comment on the issue. And Beth Cheuk, a spokeswoman with Charlottesville City Public Schools, did not directly answer a question about whether the school division views the act by the teachers as a strike.

Instead, she said in an email to the Mercury that high levels of staff absenteeism are common on Fridays.

“When we look back at Friday’s absentee rates, it was not much higher than it would be for a regular Friday,” she wrote, adding that the high school has a few vacancies, and teachers were also out for personal reasons such as parental leave and conferences.

“When you add to this some additional teachers who were out because they felt like they needed this reset, it pushed the school beyond the ability to safely staff on Friday,” Cheuk said.

Shannon Gillikin, president of the Charlottesville Education Association, also did not answer a question about whether the action was a strike but said the association did not help plan any of the actions by the teachers.

“The increase in unsafe conditions, the lack of substitute teachers and coverage, and the lack of response from administration led staff to take action. CHS staff believes in their community and their students; they need our help,” she wrote.

Hodges said that even if the teacher callouts were coordinated, she questioned whether the district would go as far as to terminate all of the teachers involved.

“Does that mean half the teachers in the Charlottesville school district, or whatever number it is, are gone immediately?” Hodges asked. “How do you run a school if you implement this?”

Virginia Mercury editor Sarah Vogelsong contributed to this story.

This story first appeared in the Virginia Mercury.

Nathaniel is a reporter for the Virginia Mercury nonprofit news organization. He is an award-winning journalist who’s been covering news across the country since 2007, including politics at the Loudoun Times-Mirror and the Northern Neck News in Virginia as well as sports for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. He has also hosted podcasts, worked as a television analyst for Spectrum Sports and appeared as a panelist for conferences and educational programs.

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