Mississippi teacher group asks educators about protests, walkouts over pay

Published 10:42 am Friday, April 5, 2019

One of Mississippi’s statewide teacher organizations asked supporters Thursday if they’re interested in protests over teacher pay and Republican education policies, even asking about an indefinite “walkout.”

The Mississippi Association of Educators, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, posted the survey Thursday online. President Joyce Helmick said the organization has heard strongly from teachers since the 2019 regular session of the Legislature adjourned that they’re angry over lawmakers’ decision to provide only a $1,500 raise to teachers beginning July 1. Helmick said teachers were also angered because Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves pushed lawmakers to spend $2 million more to subsidize private school tuition for special education students, with many lawmakers not discovering the spending until after they voted to pass the bill.

“The educators and the citizens are really upset,” Helmick said. “You can tell they’re upset and they’re calling for action.”

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The survey asks about support for possible actions including a rally at the state Capitol on a Saturday, after-work picketing, campaigning for candidates, and boycotting business that donate to “anti-public education candidates.” The survey also asks about a one-day sickout and whether teachers could “walkout on a specific day and refuse to return for an indefinite amount of time.” Helmick said that’s a synonym for a strike.

Mississippi has had only one significant teacher strike, in 1985, and as part of a deal giving teachers a $4,400 pay raise over three years, lawmakers wrote stringent language outlawing any future strikes.

Teacher groups can be fined $20,000 a day for disobeying a court order against a walkout. Striking teachers are supposed to permanently be barred from public school teaching unless a court reinstates them because of “public necessity.” Local school boards are barred from closing schools during a strike “as long as practicable” and are required to report names of strikers to the attorney general. For violations, school board members can be convicted of misdemeanors and fined up to $250 a day.

“MAE is not putting in there that we are going to strike,” Helmick said, although she said teachers should be legally able to strike.

Helmick’s group has 7,000 members, of whom 5,000 are teachers and full-time school employees. It’s the second-largest teachers group in the state, behind the 13,500-member Mississippi Professional Educators, which has no union ties. The executive director of the larger group, Kelly Riley, described dissatisfaction with the raise and the “sneaky and underhanded” insertion of the $2 million as “a nuclear bomb for teachers.”

“I have never seen our members as engaged and frustrated,” Riley said, adding she’s been deluged with emails, phone calls and texts.

Riley said her group isn’t coordinating with MAE or the small state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. She said members would have to make their own decisions about strikes, but warned that officials would use the anti-strike law to crack down.

“I think anything illegal is going to be met with the statutory response by state policy leaders,” Riley said.

Riley said she said she supports legal protest actions, and said her members will hold lawmakers accountable in August or November. However, in many cases, teachers could arrive to the polls and find no one is running against disfavored candidates. At least 22 state senators and 53 state House members face no major-party opposition for election.