Seattle teachers can fight for what they deserve

September 17, 2015

The proposed teachers contract in Seattle makes progress, but leaves some educators and demands behind. Darrin Hoop explains many SEA members are saying "no."

THE FIVE-day strike by 5,000 members of the Seattle Education Association (SEA)--a struggle that electrified the city and sent shock waves across the country--has been suspended pending a contract vote on a tentative agreement (TA) at a general membership meeting at Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle on September 19.

Early in the morning on September 15, after an all-night negotiating session, the SEA and the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) agreed to a deal that, in many ways, is historic for Seattle educators. It contains provisions on education justice issues that are unheard of around the U.S.

But the contract falls short in a number of important areas, including the critically important question of fair wages for teachers who have been without a cost-of-living increase in six years, while enduring the rising cost of living in a city that is riding the wave of a tech-driven economic boom.

For that reason, many union activists, including members of Social Equality Educators (SEE), a rank-and-file caucus within the union, are urging members to vote "no" on the deal--and send the bargaining team back to the negotiating table to demand more, with another strike deadline if no acceptable agreement is reached. The money is there to meet the teachers' just demands.

Seattle teachers on the picket line during their strike
Seattle teachers on the picket line during their strike (Seattle Education Association)


THE CONCESSIONS that the SEA did win from school officials would have been impossible without the unprecedented unity of SEA members and the incredible solidarity shown by parents, students and community members around Seattle.

Roberta Lindeman, a veteran educator who recently retired from her full-time teaching job, but now works as a substitute, summarized the sentiment felt throughout the SEA:

For the better part of 34 years, I've been a teacher and union activist in the Seattle Education Association. Never in all these years, from the last SEA strike in 1985 to the one-day walkouts and march on Olympia and to the May 19 one-day strike this past spring have we seen the level of unity and solidarity among the SEA members, parents and students and the greater community, including the Seattle City Council and the King County Labor Council.

This sends a clear message that we are both organized and supported in the ongoing fight for better working conditions for ourselves and better learning conditions for our students.

There are substantial advances for union members in the TA. For starters, it eliminates the "Student Growth Rating" agreed to in the previous contract that tied tested-subject teachers' evaluations to student test scores. In the context of the national drive to shove the linking of standardized test scores to educators' evaluations down the throats of teachers' unions, removing this clause from the contract helps set a national precedent for other teachers' unions to copy.

This achievement clearly follows in the footsteps of the historic boycott of the MAP test at Garfield High School in 2013, which helped spark the ongoing national movement against testing.

In addition, for the first time, the union won the creation of 30 "race and equity teams" in different Seattle Public Schools. The job of these teams would be to identify examples of institutional racism in schools, and make recommendations to address them. Though teachers know this won't eliminate racism in schools, these teams could be a first step in dealing with such ugly realities as the fact that SPS disciplines African American students at four times the rate of white students.

The SEA also made crucial gains by winning hard caseload caps for the first time for physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, audiologists and speech language pathologists. The contract would codify a certain ratio of staff to students for these specialists. SPS will be obligated to hire additional educators to meet the new ratios.

All of these come on top of SPS's commitment--on September 3, two days after the unanimous strike authorization vote by over 2,000 SEA members, and four days before the walkout began--to implement a key union demand of 30 minutes of guaranteed recess for all elementary schools in the district. This issue developed out of parent mobilizations from groups like Lunch and Recess Matter.


ALL THESE advances highlight how the SEA prioritized social justice issues--concrete measures to address the racial equity gap within SPS between white students and students of color--over traditional bread-and-butter economic issues like pay and benefit increases. The 40-person negotiating team should be congratulated for these achievements and commended for fighting for the best possible contract.

Their commitment was backed up by the rock-solid picket lines at the 97 schools in the district, serving 53,000 students. Seattle witnessed the power of the strike weapon used by teachers, instructional assistants, paraprofessionals, nurses, counselors, substitute teachers and office professionals.

Without a strike, it would have been impossible to win the improvements that do exist in the TA--especially ones like guaranteed recess, which isn't a mandatory subject of bargaining.

In the context of a national labor movement that has shrunk to only 11.1 percent of the workforce in 2014, the unprecedented unity shown by members of the SEA should inspire not just teachers, but workers of all kinds around the U.S. to raise their expectations for what is possible in contract negotiations.

Andy Russell, a fourth-grade teacher at Dearborn Park Elementary, member of the union's bargaining team, and SEE supporter, voted in favor of the TA. He singled out the overwhelming support that educators received from parents, students and the community, while also expressing a tension that many SEA members feel regarding the contract agreement:

I think the bargaining team knew we had the support of the our members and the community as well, but when the strike happened, we were still overwhelmed by how strong the support was from both the members and the community.

I really think the strike galvanized a lot of schools and SEA as a whole. Even though we got a number of things we really wanted in the contract, there are a ton of issues out there still to be fought for. The strike also clearly had brought in a whole new generation of younger teachers into the union. The picket captains at my school were the two youngest, least senior teachers. As for the TA, I think there were areas we were a little disappointed with--especially compensation.


IN FACT, the "disappointment" Russell refers to has led to many educators, while supporting the efforts of negotiating team members like him and others, to call for a "no" vote. They believe that despite the important gains made with this TA, the union should raise its expectations for what is possible to win.

For example, the SEA agreed to increase the school day by 20 minutes per day. In addition to setting a dangerous precedent for future contracts, there's no credible research that shows this will actually improve student learning.

Secondly, while the SPS's concession to the creation of 30 "race and equity teams" is a marked improvement from earlier proposals--which started first at zero and increased to six--many educators feel underwhelmed, since institutional racism clearly exists at all 97 schools in the district. The school-to-prison-pipeline that disproportionately targets African American students isn't something that should wait for another three years to be addressed at more than two-thirds of schools.

Thirdly, though the caseload caps for some counseling staff are an important step forward, general school counselors--some of them with caseloads of 400 to 500 students--remain unchanged. Nurses were also left out of the deal, leaving the future health needs of students woefully understaffed.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, the proposed wage increases contained in the tentative agreement are a slap in the face to many SEA members.

The union initially put forward a proposal for wage increases of 7 percent each year over the life of a three-year contract. This aggressive demand was made to address the fact that SEA members hadn't received a cost-of-living increase in the previous six years.

In the TA that SEA negotiators agreed to, educators would receive wage increases of 3 percent, 2 percent and 4.5 percent over the course of a three-year deal.

Compare this to the recent agreement that settled the educators' strike in Pasco, Wash. The Pasco Association of Educators--in a district that is much smaller than Seattle, with 900 teachers and 17,000 students--won a pay raises of 8.7 percent over the life of a two-year contract. In Seattle, after accounting for the extra 20 minutes tacked onto each school day and rising inflation due to an extra contract year, the SEA is getting a 9.5 percent increase over three years.

When the skyrocketing cost of housing in Seattle is factored in, the disappointment in the wage package becomes clearer.

According to Grist.org, the median home price in Seattle is $535,000 in 2015--19 percent higher after just one year: "The average rent in Seattle was $1,615 a month as of March 2015; according to Federal Housing and Urban Development standards, you would need to make a minimum of $64,600 annually to afford this without undergoing financial distress." Meanwhile, a report on salary.com, documents that 50 percent of high school teachers in Seattle earn less than $60,000 a year.

And remember: the people of Seattle are famously on record in support higher wages for all workers. An opinion poll conducted in May 2014 found that 74 percent of likely Seattle voters supported a $15 an hour minimum wage.


DESPITE ALL this, SEA President Jonathan Knapp argues that continuing the contract fight will risk alienating parents and the city at large.

By pushing to end the strike before members knew what was in the tentative agreement, Knapp undercut the democratic functioning of the SEA. In the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, by contrast, delegates voted to continue the walkout even after reaching a tentative agreement in order to have picket-line meetings to discuss--and vote on--the deal. But now that picket lines came down in Seattle, Knapp now says that a "no" vote necessarily means re-launching the strike.

In fact, SEA members have the authority to ask the bargaining team to return to negotiations and set a new strike deadline. In the meantime, teachers can continue to build their relationships with parents and the community, and explain the importance of the issues on the table, from full and immediate implementation of race and equity measures to adequate pay and benefits for educators.

But there's little time for SEA members to discuss all this prior to Sunday's membership meeting. That's why it's important for teachers in every school to discuss the proposed deal as fully as possible before then--and be clear about the option to continue the contract struggle.

Ian Golash is a nine-year veteran Social Studies teacher at Chief Sealth International High School and a SEE activist. At the SEA representative assembly on Tuesday, he voted in favor of the TA. Since then, however, he's had a change of heart:

I was in favor of the TA yesterday, but my thinking has evolved today. There's an element of the tyranny of the majority in it. Counselors and nurses were left out because they're a small constituency. The same goes for the SPED Access Ratios [special education educators]. The salary raises aren't as big of a deal to teachers, but they matter significantly to classified staff. Why must there be parity there? Shouldn't classified be getting more of a raise because they are so far behind?

I wish this had occurred to me earlier because it seems disingenuous to argue it now. However, I will vote against the TA, even though I am unsure if we can do better. I will do that because an injury to one is an injury to all, and when we tell those left out to wait, I wonder if we are really telling them: never.


IF THE membership of the SEA were to vote down the TA, what would happen next?

Clearly one possibility at some point is a return to the picket lines, where Seattle teachers have had overwhelming support from the working people around the city--and there's no reason to believe that would disappear.

The support for the strike--not just in terms of its popularity, but active involvement--got national attention. Parents and the community know from their own experience that Seattle teachers have to face the same higher costs of living. Given the shortage of teachers in many cities and states, Seattle will also see an exodus from the profession unless educators are compensated fairly for the work they do that enables them to have a decent standard of living in the city whose children they educate.

The examples of solidarity have been inspiring. The Coalition for the Schools Seattle Deserves organized a concert benefit at 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 attended. The event raised $6,200, with another $7,500 donated online since then.

Then, on the day the TA was announced, parents, with the backing of the SEA, organized a rally of over 500 that marched from downtown to the headquarters of SPS.

In addition to continuing a strike, the union could discuss other options. One possibility would be to call for a return to the bargaining table, but keep the schools open. A strong "no" vote would show SPS that SEA members expect even more in their contract. The SEA could then use the time to plan for future actions, whether a series of one-day strikes or a future open-ended walkout.

SEA member Roberta Lindeman makes a compelling argument for voting "no" and continuing the struggle:

At this point, it's uncertain whether the membership will vote to ratify the tentative agreement. We value the definite gains won by our bargaining team on social justice issues--winning more recess time for elementary students, creating equity teams in schools to address issues of discipline and the opportunity gap, and reducing the testing of Seattle's students that has become an epidemic in our schools.

Yet the lack of compensation for the members is a hard one to swallow. Educators are clear victims of the income inequality that is so pervasive in this country. It's hard to accept continued low wages while others bask in Seattle's economic boom. The state's COLA and the district's meager compensation package being offered don't come close to reversing the effects of many years of going without any gains.

Seattle teachers have inspired the city with their fight. They should keep it going. It's a struggle not only for themselves, but a battle to defend public education that can provide opportunities for the most vulnerable of our kids.

If the Washington state Supreme Court, under its McCleary decision, can hold the state legislature in contempt of court for failing to fully fund public education, Seattle teachers--along with parents and the community--can hold Seattle Public Schools accountable for failing to put that money where it needs to go: fully funding the race and equity teams across the district, hiring more general counselors to cut the caseload, putting more nurses in the schools, and paying educators enough so they can afford to teach our kids.

At a time when the city's rich and powerful--people like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos--are literally bulldozing everything in their way to remake Seattle to serve the 1 Percent, teachers have showed that another direction is possible for our city. By rejecting this deal and pressing ahead, the teachers can win both the contract they deserve and further the fight for education justice.

As Lindeman concluded: "For our side, we've got the McCleary decision, the voters' demand for smaller class sizes that has yet to be reached, and a new level of commitment from union members to continue the struggle. It's not over."

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