How far will the strike wave go in Washington?

September 7, 2018

Darrin Hoop, a member of the Seattle Education Association and Social Equity Educators, provides the backdrop to the teachers’ struggles that have erupted across the state — and analyzes the tentative agreement in Seattle that would, if approved, leave teachers in the largest school district with the lowest pay increase, even as educators elsewhere show their power on the picket line.

AS THE new school year began this fall, last spring’s revolt of the educators has erupted in Washington state.

The walkouts began in the southwestern corner of the state and started to spread north, reaching Tacoma, the state’s third-largest city, late this week.

Meanwhile, teachers in the biggest district, Seattle, are voting this weekend on a tentative agreement with a lower wage increase than any other association has settled for so far. If teachers vote “no” to use their leverage to fight for more, that could lead to a second strike in Seattle in three years.

At the end of August, an unprecedented seven different locals of the Washington Education Association (WEA) were on strike at the same time, with six of them located in Clark County, just across the state’s border from Portland, Oregon.

Striking teachers walk the picket line in Vancouver, Washington
Striking teachers walk the picket line in Vancouver, Washington (Evergreen Education Association | Facebook)

Since then, four strikes — in Hockinson, Ridgefield, Rainier, and Vancouver — ended with new contracts being ratified. But several new districts in southern Washington started strikes in the first few days of September. As of September 5, educators in the Centralia, Evergreen, Washougal, Battle Ground, Longview and Centralia districts were on the picket line.

The strike wave then spread farther north to districts closer to Seattle. Teachers in Stanwood-Camano, Tumwater, Puyallup and Tukwila, whose district is adjacent to the south of Seattle, went on strike on Wednesday, and educators in Tacoma, which is 30 miles south of Seattle and the state’s third biggest city, struck on Thursday.

The impetus for the strikes is the state legislature finally being forced by the McCleary court decision to pump $2 billion into the state’s public schools solely for educators’ salaries.

IT’S BEEN a long time coming for a court case that started in 2007 when two families sued Washington state over inadequate school funding. Five years later, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in favor of the families and ordered the state to fully fund K-12 public schools.

The decision concluded that the legislature was violating Article IX of the Washington Constitution, which reads, “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.”

After two years of inaction, the state Supreme Court found the legislature in contempt for not coming up with a funding plan. It initiated a daily fine of $100,000 that lasted from August 2015 until June 2018, with the money going to education funding.

Finally, in 2017, the state legislature increased funding for the 2018-19 school year by $1 billion, and in June of this year, it “satisfied” the Supreme Court decision by adding another $1 billion in new money for educators’ salaries.

More than 250 locals of the WEA either opened their contracts to negotiate over wages or, like the Seattle Education Association, already had contracts that expired at the beginning of the school year.

Up to now, all of the strikes have been solely over educator’s salaries. For once, labor has been able to negotiate from a point of strength.

Unfortunately, though, many district administrations around the state, especially those in southwestern Washington, want to hoard the funds, either for bloated administrator’s salaries, other general education funding needs or to put towards reserve funds for future “crises.”

Combine this with the fact that Washington state “has the most unfair state and local tax system in the country” according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s Tax Inequality Index, and it’s easy to see what led to the strike wave.

Teachers are simply demanding salaries commensurate with their long hours and hard work — and with the invaluable importance of educating future generations of children and young adults.

Much like with the “red state” strikes in the spring, these walkouts are radicalizing teachers as well. As Marj Hogan, a member and organizer in the Evergreen Education Association, said in an interview about the strike there:

The struggle over getting the McCleary funds into our contract has helped many members gain a better understanding of how state funding works, how the district manages its budget, who controls funding and for what purpose.

I have heard a lot of rank and file begin to ask questions about why these systems operate the way they do, and I hope that that increased capacity to examine critically how we got here will translate into a membership that is more actively engaged, not only on wage negotiation issues, but state-level concerns that affect the strength and sustainability of our public schools.

IN THE state’s largest school district in Seattle, the 6,000 members of the Seattle Education Association (SEA) will be voting on Saturday on a tentative agreement (TA) to settle their first contract negotiations since they struck in 2015.

The SEA negotiating team and executive board are recommending a “yes” vote on the TA. Some of the most important issues being highlighted are:

A one-year contract
A 10.5 percent pay increase for all educators, not just teachers
Five days of paid parental leave
Ten Racial Equity Teams in new schools
Lowering the counselor to student ratio from 400-to-1 to 375-to-1
Health care for substitute teachers after 45 consecutive workdays in the same job, instead of 60
An extra $15 a month for certificate pay for office professionals
$40,000 to incentivize professional development for paraprofessionals

To be clear, given the state of the national labor movement, this isn’t a bad proposal.

The leadership claims there are no concessions in it. Any paid parental leave at all is a first for the SEA contract. The lowering of the counselor to student ratio by 25 is the first time this ratio has been lowered in 20 years. More Racial Equity Teams expands on the gains of the 2015 contract that first won these teams, which are meant to create space for educators to discuss and address structural racial inequities in our schools, for the first time.

The problem is that many Seattle educators, while appreciating all the hard work of the negotiating team, believe we can and must do better.

Members of Social Equity Educators, a rank-and-file social justice caucus of SEA members are advocating for a “no” vote on the TA and for a “Fight for $15” campaign that demands a wage increase of at least 15 percent for teachers and at least 20 percent for everyone else.

With at least 11 different locals on strike in the state, now is the time to unite with the thousands of striking educators and the 100-plus other WEA locals still negotiating over pay or their full contracts.

While technically true that each local bargains its own contract, this doesn’t mean the SEA and WEA leadership couldn’t use this perfect opportunity to unite educators by coordinating statewide strikes and bargaining, just as teachers did in last spring’s “red state” rebellions.

Unfortunately, the WEA has left it up to each individual local to negotiate on its own.

THE SITUATION in Seattle is different and more difficult for teachers in several ways.

First, SEA is negotiating our entire contract. This means that even though the McCleary money is specifically earmarked for wages, because we are asking for many other issues that cost money, the lines between the pools of money for wages and everything else can get blurred. Both district officials and the union leadership argue that this lowers the overall amount we can win in wages.

Second, SEA represents not just teachers, but also classified staff and office professionals — essentially everyone who works in a school building except for the custodial staff and security. All the strikes statewide have been just for salary increases for teachers.

Sadly, while a few locals have won double-digit increases for classified staff, most of them will see increases of just a few percent. Most WEA locals don’t even represent non-teacher educators.

The third difference in Seattle is that at the same time there was an increase of McCleary money on the one hand, the state legislature was taking away with the other money from districts like Seattle, which get a higher percentage of funding from regressive local levies.

Previously, Seattle collected 37 percent of its funding from local levies. As part of the McCleary settlement all districts can now only collect 24 percent of funds from local levies. The net result is that Seattle got a smaller pool of money, relative to number of students, than did many other districts that rely less on local levies.

Still, the time is now to fight for more.

WHY SHOULD Seattle educators vote “no” on this contract?

First, while the 10.5 percent raise in one year is much better than the 9.5 percent total raises spread out over three years in the current contract, educators know that no local association has settled for less than an 11.9 percent so far.

The latest statistics show the statewide average raise for teachers is 17.3 percent. For locals west of the Cascade Mountains, where the bulk of the state’s population lives, the average is 18.6 percent, or almost double what SEA has been offered.

Not only does a 10.5 percent increase pale in comparison to other districts — which means we’ll lose educators who take jobs in higher-paying nearby districts — but the increase has to be compared to the cost of living in Seattle.

For any educators who are renters, the 10.5 percent proposal doesn’t even keep up with the average increase in rent from last year. According to ABODO, an apartment rental site, “Seattle was among the five cities with the steepest increases in year-over-year rent prices in 2017. Seattle saw rent prices grow 13.5 percent.”

Olivia Geffner, an American Government, Humanities and Sociology teacher at Franklin High School, believes the most important issue in this contract is competitive wages:

Even since three years ago, Seattle has gotten so much more expensive. People can’t live here, not just teachers, but educators of all different levels. The money is there — the district is just not really paying for it. And I feel that in 2015, our union promised us something higher, and settled for something lower, and that wasn’t fair. People were mad then.

Jesse Hagopian, an Ethnic Studies teacher at Garfield High School, agrees:

I know we got more from the district than we would have if we hadn’t voted to authorize a strike. However, we can get more for educators and students if we hold strong and carry out a strike for a just contract.

A strike could still win us restorative justice coordinators at pilot schools and a dramatic reduction of suspension rates, especially for students of color. A strike can win a robust commitment to an ethnic studies program in the Seattle schools. A strike can win the at least 15 percent raise that so many in the union demanded.

I also believe strongly that the educational support professionals should have received a higher raise than the teachers because their pay is so dismally low.

THOSE ADVOCATING for a “no” vote have had multiple disagreements over the entire negotiating process.

First, we continue to disagree with the SEA leadership using a labor-management negotiating strategy called interest-based bargaining. Second, SEE raised, and lost, a vote to have an elected bargaining team. Third, there has been very little effort to build a public contract campaign, especially compared to more reform-minded locals like United Teachers Los Angeles.

The leadership didn’t hold a public rally or begin any strike preparation plans until less than a month before the contract expired. No effort was made to reach out to the main parent support group, Soup for Teachers, that grew out of the 2015 strike.

Finally, at a couple recent SEA meetings, Executive Director John Donaghy claimed to members that not only can the district not afford more than a 10 percent raise, but if we did get more, the district could invoke “binding conditions.”

This, according to Donaghy, which would allow the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to open up our contract and unilaterally remove sections of it that it feels the district or state can’t afford, because they aren’t “basic” to education funding. Donaghy claimed that advances like the Racial Equity Teams and special education caseload limits could be removed from the contract.

When questioned by this author at the membership meeting where we passed the strike authorization vote, Donaghy admitted that he hadn’t read the official state language pertaining to “binding conditions,” nor would he show members the language.

While the SEA leadership argues that 10.5 percent is all the district can afford, Edmonds, a neighboring suburb to the north of Seattle, won a 20 percent pay increase. A Seattle Times article pointed out that this came in a district that has “already projected it will be about $39 million in the red by 2022.”

Instead of buying the district’s claims about being broke, we need to fight for increases like those won in Edmonds and Shoreline, where teachers got a 24.4 percent increase.

If that means forcing a “crisis of funding,” then all the more reason that a SEA strike should unite with the 10-plus other ongoing walkouts to demand that the legislature “find” the money to pay all of us what we deserve — if not now, then when it reconvenes in March of next year.

Brian Black, a history teacher at Franklin High School, summarized a different vision for SEA:

I don’t think our union leadership is prepared to lead the type of struggle that is necessary to protect and expand public education — one that envisions mass demonstrations and strikes. We need to build alliances with other working-class organizations. We need to strengthen and democratize our union. We need to fight for social justice in our schools and in our communities.

We don’t need to harken back to labor history from the 1930s to see what’s possible for labor today. If educators in right-to-work “red states” could unite statewide, strike and win hundreds of millions in funding last spring, there’s no reason why teachers in an extremely “blue state” can’t do the same.

Jesse Hagopian summarized well why members of SEE feel the union can do better:

The “red state revolt” of educators in right-to-work states were a major inspiration to educators in Seattle and across Washington state. They showed that even in the most unfavorable of conditions, it is educators who make the schools run — and it is educators who can shut them down if they aren’t being respected.

From West Virginia to Los Angeles to Washington, educators are teaching the country how to revive the labor movement and struggle for the schools our children deserve.

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