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Transatlantic Blog

How Germany handles teacher strikes

As the U.S. school year wound to a close, teachers unions waged statewide strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma, and inspired associated teacher strikes in Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina. The walkouts, celebrated by the media as the “Red State Revolt,” received adulatory media coverage despite keeping millions of children out of school for a combined total of more than a month.

From across the Atlantic, the social democracy of Germany offered a much different response to teacher strikes. This week, its high court reaffirmed that the German constitution bans labor stoppages by public servants.

Four teachers – supported by the teachers unions German Education Union (GEW) and the Federation of German Trade Unions (DGB) – argued that being disciplined for illegally taking part in a strike violates the European Convention on Human Rights.

On Tuesday, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled that public servants (Beamte or Beamtinnen in German) cannot strike, because it violates the very nature of service. “A right to strike for civil sector workers … would undermine [the] fundamental principles” of civil service, said Andreas Voßkuhle, president of the court.

Roughly three-quarters of the nation’s 800,000 teachers are classified as public servants – and public servants are to have a higher loyalty than other employees. As Ciarán Lyng, who worked for a government union before taking a post in the Irish government, explains:

The original idea behind civil servants was developed as part of the "enlightened monarchical rule" as practiced in 18th century Prussia and other German states. The idea was that whoever represents the state by doing official duties that only the state may legally provide (hoheitliche Aufgaben), such as issuing official documents, teaching state-approved curricula to students, preaching in state-approved churches, wielding lethal power in the name of the state, or making any other kind of official decisions, should have a special kind of employment with the state - an employment marked by a higher-than-normal degree of loyalty. Ideally, that loyalty works in both directions, with the Beamte having a special duty of serving (Dienstpflicht) that goes beyond the merely economic self-interest of the salaried worker, and the state having a special duty of seeing to their welfare (Fürsorgepflicht) that likewise goes beyond what would be expected of a commercial employer.

As part of this arrangement, German public servants receive benefits private-sector employees do not enjoy, “most importantly, the virtual impossibility of losing one's job - basically, the state may transfer Beamte who do not perform well to other, often less desirable, posts, but may only terminate employment entirely in cases of serious disciplinary issues.”

In return, Germany denies Beamte the right to strike to assure “public administration on a federal, state, and local level remain functional and cannot be ‘incapacitated’ during a strike.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt shared these sentiments. FDR opposed collective bargaining for public sector employees, especially direct action like strikes. “Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees,” he wrote to a union official in 1937. “Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.”

One can easily imagine how he would have responded had that “paralysis” included grinding education to a halt.

FDR may have had the German model in mind when he sketched the ideal relationship of government employees to the workplace. But 81 years after his letter, the United States has the worst hybrid of bureaucracy. The taxpayer has provided government employees with better-than-average benefits and job security, but with no attendant commitment by those employed not to strike.

In some states teachers’ legal protections trump, not just students’ education, but their physical well-being. A new bill would give the Delaware Education Department power to suspend teachers’ licenses “if they are arrested or indicted by a grand jury for a violent felony, or where there is a clear and immediate danger to student safety or welfare,” local media report. Lawmakers cited specific examples of teachers keeping their licenses, or continuing to work in state schools, although they are a menace to students, including a teacher who shoved an autistic child and a man accused of inappropriately touching girls’ thighs and making sexual comments.

Such “job security” is so generous as to be lethal. If criminals and miscreants remain eligible to teach, can the profession be said to need greater employment protections?

People of faith should be concerned about teacher strikes in part because we strive for peace and social harmony. Strikes are by nature divisive, stir discontent, and are sometimes physically violent. When John the Baptist confronted public servants of his day, he told them, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages” (St. Luke 3:14).

Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum regards strikes as something to be lamented rather than celebrated. Such a “grave inconvenience” as the “paralysing of labor not only affects the masters and their work people alike, but is extremely injurious to trade and to the general interests of the public.”

Teacher strikes are especially grievous, since they deny young people an education, which teacher unions always present as the highest social good. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that a strike “becomes morally unacceptable” when it is “contrary to the common good.”

Does the “grave inconvenience” of denying children an education for days or weeks serve the common good? The German high court has rendered its verdict.


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.