Activists In Mississippi Challenge Constitutionality Of Anti-Strike Law

Above photo: Bus drivers in Greenville Public School District went on strike to protest reduced hours, low pay and ‘poor treatment’ by the district. Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today.

Greenville School Bus Drivers May Have Kicked The Door Wide Open.

A political time bomb is ticking in Greenville, and the explosion could transform the state’s public education environment for decades to come.

Last Monday and Tuesday, between 13-20 bus drivers for the Greenville Public School District — some of the lowest paid employees in one of the most under-resourced school districts in one of the most under-resourced regions of America — skipped work to protest reduced pay and what they called poor work conditions.

As far as anyone knows, this was the first organized work stoppage in Mississippi public schools since 9,429 teachers walked out in a 1985 strike, after which lawmakers passed the demanded pay increases but also enacted one of the nation’s most stringent strike laws.

Lawmakers that year made it explicitly illegal for school employees to strike in Mississippi. They drafted the law as broadly as possible to include pretty much any excuse that teachers — including bus drivers, in this case — could use.

Lawmakers that year made it explicitly illegal for school employees to strike in Mississippi.

The consequences for the Greenville bus drivers, clearly written out in state law, are grave: They could be fired and would never be able to work in any public school district in the state again. Several of the drivers have indicated to Mississippi Today in recent days they did not know the extent of the state law before they went on strike, and school officials said on Thursday that several of the drivers tried to retroactively claim they were sick for the two days of the strike.

Dorian Turner, the attorney for the Board of Trustees of the Greenville Public School District, said in a Greenville Public School District board meeting on Thursday afternoon that she had been gathering facts about what, exactly, happened last week. And despite the bus drivers’ claims about not knowing state law, she said that what occurred last week was, indeed, a strike.

“It looked to me that what we had was a situation where the bus drivers had gone on strike, and that was activity that was illegal,” Turner told the Greenville school board on Thursday. “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you’ve probably got a duck on your hands. They may or may not have known that doing that was an illegal activity, but that was the effect of all those employees deciding not to come to work.”

The meeting then quickly devolved into confusion, with board members talking over each other and lobbing accusations. Some members questioned whether what the bus drivers did even constituted a strike by legal definition, and the board president blamed the director of transportation for allowing the work stoppage.

The board members appeared oblivious to the state laws at hand, including ones that could affect them personally. The strike law passed in 1985 clearly states that school board members themselves are responsible for reporting the names of those who striked to the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office. For each day that those names are not reported by the board to the state, the individual board members and school administrators can be fined between $100 and $250. Turner did not disclose that provision to the board during the Thursday meeting, though Greenville Superintendent Debra Dace at one point said during the meeting that she had a list of the drivers who went on strike.

“Before we send these names to the AG’s office, we want to be sure,” Jan Vaughn, the president of the board, said during the meeting. “There’s a misdemeanor, a large fine, maybe even jail time. So I want to be clear about this before we take any action.”