Lawyer explains legal dimensions of planned teacher walkout

Michelle Swann, a partner with Radix Law, discusses the legality of a state-wide teacher walkout, and why it’s phrased as a walkout rather than a strike.

Swann says it depends on which side you’re talking to when it comes to being referred to as a walkout or strike. Strikes are generally a protest to management or a supervisor. In this case, the walkout is based on concerns about the lack of public funding for education. Swann says teachers are probably steering away from the term strike because it contains political baggage that they don’t want to associate with.

“Arizona doesn’t have a law that prohibits public employees from striking,” Swann says. “It also doesn’t have something that says, this is what will happen if you do strike. In some sense the terminology doesn’t matter, but it’s more of a psychological impact at this point.”

Arizona is a right-to-work state, meaning that an employer can fire any employee who is not under a contract for any unprohibited reason. Prohibited reasons would include firing someone for their gender, age, lifestyle and the like. Similarly, the employee is allowed to quit without giving a reason. Swann says it is legal to have a strike in a right-to-work state.

Nonetheless, there is still a lot of gray area. Swann says the only teacher walkout recorded in the state was from the 1970s, and there’s not a whole lot of information on it.

Will the teachers be disciplined for walking out? It’s hard to say.

“Because we are in completely uncharted water it’s difficult to give a black and white answer… I think it depends on the individual teacher’s situation and whether the district decides to consider it an absence. I think that’s going to change depending on how long they’re out.”

The Board of Education has come down to warn teachers that there may be serious repercussions for walking out. The repercussions could be as simple as a note in their file or as serious as taking away their teaching certificate. Swann says there’s legal language implying that either is possible.

The teachers are still scheduled to conduct a walkout on Thursday, and it’s unclear for how long it will happen. Nearly one hundred school districts containing over one thousand schools, including charter schools, have notified parents and guardians that there will be no class this Thursday.

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Michelle Swann: Partner, Radix Law

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