The union’s power depends on its membership

September 14, 2015

Seattle teachers will begin the second week of school on the picket line as the strike of 53,000 educators continues. Members of the Seattle Education Association (SEA) are fighting around a range of issues, including immediate economic demands like a fair wage increase--the teachers have not received a cost-of-living raise in six years--but also issues that go to the heart of the struggle to defend public education.

SEA President Jonathan Knapp was on the picket line outside Ingraham High School on the first day of the strike. He talked to Darrin Hoop about the organizing that set the stage for the walkout and the importance of the fight that teachers are making.

COULD YOU describe the atmosphere at the mass meeting in downtown Seattle a week before the strike where teachers voted unanimously to authorize a walkout?

THAT WAS a very interesting night for me. Two years ago, there was some disappointment that we didn't take a ballot vote from some people. I planned this meeting on that premise, that we should probably take a ballot vote. But over the course of the night, it became clear how much enthusiasm there was.

About halfway through the meeting, we had an amendment we worked on and a vote on this and some other things. It become clear to me that the membership was very unified, and that it would be way more powerful in this instance to have a voice vote that could be witnessed by the public, rather than a paper ballot, then tabulation and then an announcement. That would be much less dramatic.

That's when the wheels started turning in my head: How do I turn this around so we can get back to a voice vote? I had to work with the body a little bit--talk them through it and see if they wanted to do it. Once they did, it was clear that it was going to be a real powerful moment. I was really happy with that.

SEA President Jonathan Knapp
SEA President Jonathan Knapp

WHAT KIND of organizing led up to that point?

I THINK the interesting part of the story is how we got to a unanimous strike vote. I think the story to tell about that is really interesting, maybe not for the general public so much as for people who are interested in organized labor and in political change.

We started three years ago when I first became president. The first school I went out to was Garfield High School. We went out with staff and governance leaders to engage the members in one-on-one conversation. Over the course of the next two years, we had 2,000 one-on-one conversations with all kinds of people in all kinds of schools.

We've been through most of the schools now--there are a few we haven't gotten to. This has meant talking to a large majority of the staff in every building, having those conversations to understand who people are, what their motivations are, what their issues are, what their challenges are. But it was also to identify who the people are that they trust and respect in their building, who are going to be able to lead action.

That has been our focus since we first started this work three years ago. Two years ago, we weren't far enough along in that process to leverage that into effective work, to build unanimity in the membership--but this time we are.

That's what we've been working for over three years is to transform the union from a service organization. Not that we don't service members--that's an important union function. But it's important for the union not to be seen as only a service organization, but as a powerful organization in its own right that can identify and advocate for the issues that are important to members. That's bearing fruit now.

We saw this a couple years ago. The first example of it started two years ago in the spring budget fight. I remember actually being up here at Ingraham, talking about how to push back on the district's plan to cut office staff. We engaged the staff here and certain leaders who we know are important in the building, and they really came through. They organized a response to those proposed budget cuts, and we pushed back on them.

We did that in a whole bunch of buildings around the district. By the time the district called us in to talk about it, we had "no" votes on budgets in half the schools in the district. The only reason we could do that is because we knew who we needed to go to in each building in order to make things happen.

WHAT ARE the most important issues for you in these contract negotiations?

WE'VE BEEN very strategic in developing our bargaining priorities. It's not that we have bargaining priorities that are there just for parents--we've done surveys with our members to understand what their concerns are and what they want us to work on. But we also understand that a certain number are really crucial for parents, too.

It's been really satisfying to see the amount of parent support on some of the things we've put on the table. Recess is not a mandatory subject of bargaining in any contract in America, but that doesn't mean you can't push for it.

The way you get things into contract bargaining that are not mandatory subjects is through membership power. It's through membership activism, engagement and coalition building.

I talked three years ago about starting the effort to organize internally. About a year and a half ago, we started moving that effort out into the community. So we've been building coalitions and relationships in the community as well.

I think those are paying off in terms of the enthusiasm that we see in the parent community and community-based organizations about many of the things we're advocating for at the bargaining table, which really resonate with them. From a certain perspective, that's almost a bigger story than any particular issue.

We've seen a long period now of 10 or 15 years of public education being criticized and not supported. I think for a good number of years, educators have felt like we're the good guys, so why are they coming after us. In that earlier period, we didn't quite know how to respond. It's taken a few years for us to understand that it's really up to us to do that for public education--to get organized, to stand up for the institution, for ourselves and for what kids need.

I think all of us believe that there isn't a more basic institution in American society that can help guarantee equal opportunity--the American Dream, to be blunt about it. We all want our kids to be successful. We all want people to have opportunity. Being the advocates for public education, it's really crucial to realize that we have to lead on that now. It's unfortunate that the political extremists are ready to sacrifice public education--to try to privatize it all. But I think educators now understand that our role is to prevent that.

WHAT'S YOUR position on how the union should respond to the possibility of a judge enforcing an injunction against the SEA, as happened in Pasco, Wash., to the teachers' strike there?

THAT'S A distraction. This happens in teachers' strikes everywhere. Sooner or later, the district will go to a judge and ask for a temporary restraining order to send everybody back. Sometimes it happens right away. Sometimes it takes a while. Usually the judge eventually grants it, but it's a distraction.

Every contract dispute is settled at the bargaining table. That's where this one will be settled. It's about the issues we're talking about. It's not about court orders. It's like theater.

The question for us is what are the issues at the bargaining table we're working on? What is the competitive compensation we're looking for that's going to keep great teachers in Seattle? What are the equity teams that we need in schools in order to deal with the disproportionate discipline? Those are the issues.

From a certain point of view, it feels to me like the School Board has run out of ideas, and they're trying to change the subject away from the bargaining issues.

IF A judge does issue an injunction, would you recommend that teachers vote to continue the strike?

THAT WILL be up to the members just like everything we do.

HOW CAN people support the teachers? What are the next steps planned for building support?

LOCALLY, IT'S really crucial to keep working that outreach to parents and the community-based organizations here. We've done good work with that. There's always more work to do.

People should come out on the lines and support teachers. Bring food. Once we get to this point in a labor action, it's about concrete actions. What are people going to do? It matters what you do.

Hopefully people will come out and support us. Write to the School Board. Write to the Superintendent. Try to write editorials for newspapers or online. Use whatever opportunity you have to talk to other people about the justice of the work we're doing--and how we're advocating not just for kids, but for a vital institution.

Further Reading

From the archives