A rising tide of solidarity for Seattle teachers

September 14, 2015

Darrin Hoop reports from the picket lines across Seattle as teachers continue their fight for a fair contract--and to defend the public education system.

THE 5,000 members of the Seattle Education Association (SEA) will begin the second week of classes on strike against the Seattle Public Schools (SPS).

Electrified by an unprecedented unanimous strike vote at a mass meeting the week before, the teachers, instructional assistants, paraprofessionals, nurses, counselors, substitute teachers and office professionals represented by the union have translated that enthusiasm to the picket lines at 97 schools, serving 53,000 students, all over the city.

Since the strike started on September 9, the key development in the strike--one that SPS woefully underestimated--is the outpouring of solidarity for teachers from Seattle's parents, students and community members. This support has inspired teachers and confirmed for them the necessity of their stand for the future of public education.

"This is awesome!" said Lian Hust as she walked the picket line on the second day of the strike. Hust has worked in SPS for the last 21 years--four years as a first grade teacher at John Muir Elementary, 12 years as a counselor at Garfield High School and, most recently, five years as a counselor at Ingraham High School. She talked about how an inspired community response was in turn inspiring teachers:

Seattle teachers on the picket line during their strike for justice
Seattle teachers on the picket line during their strike for justice (Renotography)

With all the support--all the parents that come out to support us and the students--I'm really energized. I was feeling kind of depressed about not starting school and thinking about all those students who really want to start. But now I know they support us. They want to pay us more. They want smaller class sizes.

Head to any public school in Seattle today, and you will hear echoes of that same sentiment from teachers across the city.

SUPPORTERS OF the striking teachers sprang into action before the strike had begun. The night before the walkout started, a new organization, the Coalition for the Schools Seattle Deserves, developed out of a joint solidarity meeting between the Social Equality Educators and the Seattle International Socialist Organization. Out of that two excellent solidarity events emerged.

On September 10, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative hosted a community forum titled "Stand with Seattle Educators--Support a Fair Contract and High Quality Education for All." at City Hall. Over 150 teachers, parents, students and community members packed the room to capacity.

In addition to Sawant, speakers included: SEA bargaining team members and teachers Gary Thomas from Garfield High School and Shelly Hurley from Graham Hill Elementary School; Nicole Grant, secretary-treasurer of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council; Rita Green, education chair of the Seattle-King County NAACP; Shedrick Johnson, president of the Garfield High School Black Student Union; Jana Robbins from Lunch and Recess Matters; Jeff Treistman, a librarian from Denny International Middle School, who read a solidarity statement from striking teachers in Pasco, Wash.; substitute teacher Matt Maley; and Jesse Hagopian, Garfield High School social studies teacher and activist in SEE.

After the forum, Garfield High School student Shedrick Johnson commented on why he and other students support their teachers:

I'm supporting the teachers because they work very hard all year long. They deserve to have fair pay. We are definitely out there on the picket line. We are definitely supporting our teachers. We are definitely striking with them. It's more than not being in school. We would rather be in school and they be happy along with us.

During the public comment section of the forum, Karen Strickland, a former tenured faculty at Seattle Central Community College and current president of American Federation of Teachers Washington, spoke of behalf of the union's 6,600 members in the state. Afterward, she added to her thoughts on the importance of this strike:

I think if we really do want to turn around the power dynamic in our society, and if we want to actually have the kind of investment in education that our families, our kids, our communities are worthy of, we have to stand together and we need to stand together with power and frequently. I applaud the teachers for going out on strike for their own contract negotiations, but also for the larger message that it sends to the rest of the community. It makes everybody realize that there is no victory without struggle.

THE SECOND event endorsed and built by the Coalition for the Schools Seattle Deserves, a Benefit to Support Seattle Educators--rocked the Neptune Theater in the University District on September 13.

Spearheaded by Kimya Dawson, who crafted the soundtrack to the movie Juno, and Jesse Hagopian, more than 700 supporters of Seattle educators flowed in and out of the five-hour fundraiser, which included sets from Dawson, Aesop Rock with Rob Sonic and DJ Zone, Grayskul, Nikkita Oliver "KO", Katie Kate, Jim Page, Alex Zerbe: Professional Zaniac and others.

The early part of the benefit included kid-oriented entertainment like a sing-a-long, juggling and a magic show--the Massive Monkeys break-dancing crew invited kids on stage for a big dance party. Children were also offered face painting and red balloons.

By the end of the night, the benefit had raised more than $8,000 for the SEA strike fund.

Dawson, who comes from a family of educators, explained why she wanted to put on this benefit and why public schools are important to her:

My main reason to enroll my child in the public schools, which are failing, is for the community. The stand that the educators are taking and the way the families have come together just solidifies the feeling that this was the right move.

Even if class is not in session, I am proud to stand with a community that supports educators and the fight for better, and more fair schools. You ALWAYS stick up for kids, and you ALWAYS stand up for social justice. Those are the two things my parents taught me are more important than pretty much anything else. The least I can do is throw a concert. This is the education reform revolution I have been waiting for my entire life.

The day before, the union reform network Labor Notes organized the Puget Sound Troublemakers School at the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center at South Seattle Community College. Some 200 attended, representing unions throughout the area. Amongst the 10-plus workshops held, SEA President Jonathan Knapp spoke, as well as SEA teachers Dan Troccoli and Jesse Hagopian.

While picketing continues in the new week, parents are planning their own actions to pressure the SPS on behalf of educators. On Tuesday at 10 a.m., Soup for Teachers, a parents' group, is holding a march from Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle to SPS district headquarters. Another parent set up a petition at change.org that has more than 5,000 signatures in support of striking educators.

AS THE solidarity effort developed, both sides returned to the bargaining table over the weekend--but there was still no agreement as this article was being produced.

The union has already won an important demand: SPS says it will guarantee a minimum of 30 minutes of recess at all elementary schools. This issue developed out of parent mobilizations from groups like Lunch and Recess Matter.

But many of the school district's insulting proposals remain unchanged. SPS demanded that the union accept a 30-minute increase in the school day with no extra pay, continued use of standardized tests scores to evaluate teachers, and a pay increase of 8.3 percent over the three-year life of a contract--after teachers have gone without even a cost-of-living wage hike in six years.

Since its initial proposal, the SEA countered with a proposal for a two-year contract, with wage increases of 5 percent in the first year and 5.5 percent in the second, down from 6 percent a year over three years.

Union negotiators are also pressing on demand around multiple issues with the aim of addressing what the union calls a "racial equity gap" in Seattle Public Schools.

The SEA wants "race and equity teams" in every single school--SPS proposed having them in six schools. The job of these teams would be to identify examples of institutional racism in schools, and to make recommendations to address them. Though teachers know this won't eliminate racism in schools, these teams could be first steps in dealing with such ugly realities as the fact that SPS disciplines African American students at four times the rate for white students.

In addition, the union aims to reduce the use of standardized testing--and, in particular, to end the "student growth rating" that ties tested subject teachers' evaluations to student test scores.

The union is proposing a joint committee of representatives from SEA and SPS with the power to accept or reject any standardized tests beyond federally mandated ones. Currently, students who stay in Seattle Public Schools from Kindergarten through 12th grade will take some 60 standardized tests during their years in school.

Jo Cripps teaches Humanities, Discover Dance (a dance residency with Pacific Northwest Ballet that is unique to SPS) and Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Licton Springs K-8. As with many other educators, she has strong opinions about over-testing:

We need to be teaching, not testing. We need to offer experience, not assessment. Kids need authentic learning, not artificial testing. Corporate "Edu-Business" is really encroaching on academic freedom for students and teachers. From March to June, I'm not free to teach, and students aren't free to learn, because they're tied to the testing system. It sabotages all learning through the spring.

The union is also demanding hard caseload caps for Education Staff Associates (ESAs, comprising school counselors and psychologists). At one point in negotiations, SPS proposed hiring seven new ESAs for the entire district!

Lian Hust, the Ingraham High School counselor, explained the importance of this issue:

I'm spread too thin with the caseload I have of over 400 students. I've had up to 550 students on my caseload before. It's very difficult to meet with students who really need the help...They aren't always the ones who come in. They're late to school. They're failing classes. It takes a lot more reaching out to them. I'm really here for students and families--I'd like lower ratios for counselors so we could actually reach out and do more for students and families.

Finally, the SEA is fighting for SAEOPS--the Seattle Association of Educational Office Professionals, and the classified and clerical staff it represents. The union is calling for the district to increase staff pay--and to hire more people to reduce the current workload.

WHILE NEGOTIATIONS are continuing, a threat looms over the strike: SPS could ask a judge for an injunction to attempt to force educators back to work.

Seattle strikers would do well to follow the example of teachers in Pasco, Wash. Some 900 out of 1,100 members of the Pasco Association of Educators voted to defy a Franklin County judge's injunction and continue striking for a second week. The union now faces back fines of $8,000 going back to the day the strike started, and additional fines of $2,000 a day for each day it continues to strike.

Despite the threats to impose the same punishments in Seattle, SEA members' determination to continue their fight for public education has been steeled by the inspiring support of community members, students and parents.

One parent among many thousands dedicated to helping the teachers win is Lynn Lee, a mother of twins, Ciara and Christopher, who will be freshman at Ingraham High School. Even though she hadn't met any teachers there, she showed up to the picket line to bring food to the strikers.

Her opinion on the significance of this strike highlights the national importance of a victory for the teachers:

I want to support the teachers, but I think it's bigger than the teachers. I think it's an erosion of workers' rights that we've seen start in Wisconsin, with Scott Walker trying to take away our right to bargain.

I come from a union family. I think unions are why we have weekends, why we have decent wages, and I support that. I think the more that they break them, we're all going to be working for minimum wage. Plus, I think the teachers deserve a decent wage. They haven't had a raise in a long time. The state needs to step up and take their responsibility for financing education.

Jesse Hagopian and Steve Leigh contributed to this article.

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