Rhode Island Judge Orders Temporary Ban on Teachers Union ‘Sickouts’

Published December 13, 2017

A sickout left students without consistent education in the first months of the current school year, as members of the Warwick Teachers Union continually called in sick to hasten contract negotiations with the district. Warwick Public Schools Superintendent Philip Thornton closed five schools by mid-October because so many teachers were absent.

According to the court report filed by the Warwick School district, on October 6, 74 out of 144 teachers at Pilgrim High School called in sick, and on October 11, 59 out of 91 teachers called in sick at Veterans Junior High School. Afterward, the district closed three elementary schools—Oakland Beach, Park, and Robertson—because of excessive teacher absences.

“Thornton and the School Committee on Monday filed for a temporary restraining order in Superior Court, arguing that the absences amounted to an illegal work stoppage that left many special education students and those receiving free and reduced lunches without recourse,” the Providence Journal reported in October 2017. “Jeffrey Kasle, a lawyer for the union, denied that there was a sickout in play. He insisted the teachers were legitimately sick and exercising their rights under the terms of the contract, which allows them 90 sick days annually. He rejected the term sickout, saying there is no evidence of a concerted plan or vote by the union about teachers calling in ill.”

Superior Court Judge Susan E. McGuirl issued a temporary restraining order in October, barring the union from staging any more sickouts for 10 days. As of late November, the union had reached a tentative contract agreement with the district.

Union Power, Student Victims

Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, says the union’s stunts are hurting every member of the families affected.

“Clearly, this is the union flexing its power, and parents and kids are the victims,” Sand said. “Kids are losing valuable seat time, and parents whose work schedules are coordinated with their kid’s school day are being inconvenienced.”

‘Union First, Students Last’

Michael Schaus, communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, says the union leaders care only about their own self-interests.

“What cases like the Warwick sickouts underscore is that unions don’t represent the interests of children, parents, or, in many circumstances, even teachers,” Schaus said. “Union leadership is, in the end, focused on one thing: the [amount] of dues they collect from taxpayer-funded public schools. The sickout in Warwick is a perfect example of this ‘union first, students last’ mentality.”

Questions Denial

Sand says the Warwick teachers union’s legal team’s denial the union was organizing the sickouts is highly suspect.

“The majority of teachers at various schools have called in sick,” Sand said. “I wonder how the lawyer can explain that the ‘epidemic’ only seems to be affecting the teaching profession?”

Monopoly Power

Schaus says the current government education system is unfair to children.

“When employees in the private sector strike or refuse to show up, it’s the employer that suffers,” Schaus said. “But that’s not how it works with a government-run monopoly like public education. When teachers don’t show up, it’s not their employer who is feeling the pinch, it’s the students.

“In the private economy, we have choices,” Schaus said. “In public education, however, parents have no such freedom. Families are often stuck at a specific school, regardless of how much the union’s political games might directly impact their children’s future.”

Clout Versus Kids, Parents

Schaus says adopting a simple, private-sector-style model for pay and attendance would stop the sickouts.

“Pay increases based on attendance are viciously opposed by most unions, despite the fact that it would almost instantly boost teacher/student engagement, student performance, and teacher pay,” Schaus said. “Of course, it would also likely make such ‘sickouts’ a thing of the past, and that’s a problem for unions that embrace such tactics to increase their political clout.

“It’s time we stop empowering the self-serving unions within the education establishment, and instead empower parents,” Schaus said. “Families deserve the right to be free from union politics. They deserve the right to choose the best school for their child.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.