“Work to Rule” – What Is It and Is It Something We Should Consider?
by Michael Donaldson, PhD
Teachers are absolutely essential in a democracy, or indeed in any modern society. We provide the tools necessary to be successful in the workplace, in the community, and in just about every other aspect of life. And yet, instead of taking the steps needed to ensure that teachers are as effective as possible, we are too often thought of as being replaceable and expendable. This attitude has allowed for entire school districts and legislators to brazenly harass, bully, and degrade hard working educators.
As most readers are probably already aware, teachers in Maryland, like many educators across the country, are not allowed to strike. Governor Larry Hogan made sure to remind everyone of that fact in one of his many addresses during the Coronavirus pandemic. He threatened teachers with the loss of their teaching license and with it their career in the field, which is a sacrifice most teachers are not willing to make. It is obvious to teachers and other stakeholders that educators need to be granted more say in how to improve the field of education. Without going on strike as an option, however, teachers’ voices are usually stifled to a large degree.
The hard reality is that there is a teacher shortage in this country. The truth of the matter is that as a collective unit, school systems, legislatures, and the country need educators for schools much more than they are willing to acknowledge. The fact is that teachers know what they, and their students, need to be as effective as possible. This article, therefore, will explore the “work to rule” strategy as a possible alternative to a strike and as an agent of change.
Work to rule is a type of workplace action where workers follow official working rules and hours exactly to the letter, often resulting in a loss of efficiency and headaches for management. Examples of work to rule actions include employees insisting on taking all legally entitled breaks or refusing a request to work unpaid overtime or to take on extra duties that are not part of their official job description. Work to rule has been used for many years as a strategy by unions and other groups of organized workers to force employers to negotiate or concede to the workers’ demands.
According to the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA), “Working to rule can help raise awareness with parents, the media, and public officials about the frequency with which dedicated educators take on additional duties that benefit both students and schools. Successful work to rule campaigns require commitment, courage, and clear communication with members and the public.”
MSEA (which is not affiliated with BTU) gives the following basic guidelines for teachers and PSRPs engaging in a work to rule action:
- Adhere to your contract. Attend all required meetings, but nothing more.
- If you have not already committed to a voluntary activity, decline requests to do so by the administration.
- If you have already committed to an activity verbally or by signing a contract, ask to be released from the duty. If you are not released, report to the activity.
- If you perform a certain voluntary activity year after year, without a specific agreement, immediately inform the administration before the activity begins that you will not perform the activity for that year.
- If an administrator directs you to perform an otherwise voluntary activity, perform the activity and immediately contact your union.
Without the right to strike, the “work to rule” strategy may be one of the only things teachers can do to keep themselves and others (including their students) from being taken advantage of by a system that seemingly could not care less if the educational system is as successful as it could be. Very recently, Baltimore County teacher colleagues have already employed this exact strategy, as will be discussed later in this article. Neither I, nor the Baltimore Teachers Union, are calling for BCPSS teachers to engage in a work to rule action at this time. The intention of this article, rather, is to systematically inform the reader of the pros, cons, and possible outcomes of such action and to open up a discussion of this topic within our union.
Some teachers absolutely cringe at the idea of engaging in a “work to rule” action, pointing to several noteworthy issues inherent in this tactic. These teachers acknowledge that they rarely ever put in less than a ten-hour workday. Although the hours are long and the weekends are short, teachers suggest that even with these elongated hours they can never seem to be caught up thanks in large part to the ever-growing professional responsibilities placed upon them. There is an overwhelming sense of dread that if they only worked bell-to-bell, and worked strictly in accordance with their contract, they would never be as prepared as they should be.
Furthermore, some teachers contend that working to rule may cause hostility between administrators and staff. This is particularly the case in schools in which teachers have been willing to do things above and beyond what they are being paid to do including, but not limited to, supervising other teachers’ students to cover absences since substitutes are not regularly available, covering lunch shifts, working with students during their planning periods, paying for material to be used inside of the classroom, as well as working with educational stakeholders well outside of the scope of their scheduled workday. Further increasing the concern around working to rule, any time an educator considers pushing back against the school system, that educator is aware that formal observations and other measures (such as the Professional Expectations measure) contain biases that could hinder his or her movement along the career pathway.
The potential consequences of taking a hard stance on the “work to rule” model include, but are not limited to, potentially lower academic achievement by students, an outpouring of contempt toward teachers by parents and other community members, a strained relationship between administrators and staff, and a decrease in evaluation ratings related to teacher expectations and effectiveness. For some, these possible drawbacks put an immediate end to the consideration. However, there are strategies that educators can put in place to prevent or mitigate these negative outcomes and instead use work to rule to build solidarity with parents and students to achieve shared goals.
As previously stated, teachers in Baltimore County have considered these potential consequences and still agreed to a life in which they only work from bell-to-bell, refusing to submerge themselves in the work that they do every waking moment of every day. They refuse to cover classes that are not their responsibility or to split children between classes when a colleague is absent. They aimed to do exactly what their contract requires from them, nothing more…nothing less.
After interviewing several teachers who are employed with Baltimore County Public Schools and are members of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County (TABCO), it became clear that – for the most part – the reasons for the implementation of “work to rule” have far outweighed the consequences. Yet it is still unclear how effective the action was at getting results.
Kelly D., a second-grade teacher from a Baltimore County elementary school, stated that in her estimation, the greatest reason for the work to rule was that “the County [school board] has not been transparent with staff [during the pandemic].” She added that “staff have been finding out information at the same time as parents and other community members.” To further exacerbate the issue, she says that teachers “have been expected to quickly make adjustments to instruction outside of contract hours.” As an example, Kelly pointed to a time when teachers received an email from the county school system on a Friday evening after 7:00 p.m. with the written expectation that substantial changes to instruction (and its delivery) be made by the following Monday morning.
Although the interviewed teachers agree that working to rule was the right decision, they also were quick to point out that the action had no negative impact on student learning. Stephanie C., a 4th and 5th grade teacher, stated that while the work to rule action “is us refusing to work more than our scheduled hours,” her students were not missing out. Although Stephanie stated that teachers were “walking in together and walking out together” at the beginning of the action, she still came in thirty minutes before she was contractually obligated so she could be adequately planned for the day ahead. Kelly D. seconded that sentiment, saying, “I have gone in a little earlier to make sure I am in a good state of mind.” The interviewed teachers openly admitted that while they were not working from home as much as they usually did, nor did they arrive as early or stay as late, they refused to let students be negatively impacted.
Additionally, while some parents on social media have ranted about teachers and their selfish behavior, many parents, aware that most teachers work extremely hard for their children have been supportive. In fact, according to those who were interviewed, the backlash from parents and administrators has been virtually nonexistent.
When asked about the effectiveness of work to rule action, Steve P., a special educator in Baltimore County, said that the action was not very effective. The work to rule action “lasted just about two weeks. It seemed to have more to do with staggering the 15 minute ‘duty’ time and the time teachers were required to stay after dismissal.” In his opinion, the action “was pointless.” “Most members,” he said, “were apathetic” and nothing really changed as a result. Stephanie C. agrees that the action’s impact was limited. “Work to Rule ended with the list of our demands being agreed upon,” she said. “However, [the school district] claim[s] the issues and such are resolved and there are still many issues.” When considering why the issues still existed, she said, “I started to see people going in and not waiting to walk in together. People were over it because it really wasn’t accomplishing anything.”
Although each of the educators questioned the effectiveness of this work to rule action, they all did state that if the collection of teachers had been more united, the outcomes of such an action would have been more favorable. To a person, they also mentioned that they have each made it a point to work less hours at home, spending more time on their quality of life.
True change often only comes after difficulty and strife. A balance of power is typically restored only after great turmoil. As evidenced by the Baltimore County work to rule action, if everyone does not buy into the action and fully commit to it, it will surely have limited effect. Knowing what colleagues in our neighboring county have done, it is now up to Baltimore City teachers and PSRPs to consider potential next steps in order to gain a louder voice. To do so, BTU members need to reflect and ask themselves if they are ready to go all in on a workplace action such as work to rule and decide whether the efforts would be worth it in the end.