Why the Seattle Strike Matters

Seattle teachers are striking not simply for better pay and benefits, but for a more just public education system.

Seattle teachers walk the picket line this week. Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times

Last week, more than 2,000 Seattle Education Association members, most of them proudly sporting their red union T-shirts, packed into Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle for a vote on whether to authorize a strike.

To supporters of the teachers who lined the way into the meeting, it was clear that the vote would be in favor of a walkout — the only question was the margin. When the time came to vote, the teachers, instructional assistants, paraprofessionals, nurses, counselors, substitute teachers, and office professionals covered by the SEA contract — people who have dedicated their lives to working with Seattle’s youth — unanimously roared “aye” in favor of the first open-ended teachers strike in Seattle in thirty years.

Roberta Lindeman, a veteran educator of more than thirty years, who recently retired from her full-time teaching job and now works as a substitute, summarized the sentiment of many others when she explained:

What this particular contract negotiation is about is getting the schools that our students, our children of Seattle, and our educators deserve. I think teachers and the members of the union have been more than willing to give in and give back [in past contracts], with excuse after excuse about not having enough money. We said, “Okay, we understand there’s an economic crisis.” But when we are looking at this city and all of the wealth that exists here, and the unfair tax system that exists throughout the state, it’s really time for all of us to stand up and say, “Basta!” — to say, “Enough!”

Since Wednesday, the 97 schools that serve Seattle’s 53,000 public school students have been closed as SEA workers walk the picket lines. Already the union has wrested one concession from school officials: guaranteed recess time at all elementary schools, a key parent demand. Earlier this week, the union announced that the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) had agreed to mandate at least thirty minutes of recess.

The decision to strike wasn’t a hasty one. Negotiations began back on May 20, and the two sides have met more than twenty times since then. However, it’s clear that SPS officials are intent on operating on a business-as-usual model. According to union activists in SEA’s reform caucus, Social Equality Educators (SEE), the district initially rejected all of the union’s proposals and waited until only recently to counter with their own proposals.

SPS is demanding a thirty-minute-longer school day with no extra pay, continued use of standardized tests scores to evaluate teachers, and a pay increase of 8.3 percent over three years — despite a freeze in teachers’ wages for the last six years, without even a cost-of-living adjustment.

By contrast, the SEA proposal addresses not only traditional bread-and-butter economic issues like salary increases, but also multiple social justice issues that aim to attack the racial equity chasm in Seattle public schools.

For example, the union wants “race and equity teams” at every school in the district. Their job would be to identify structural inequalities and examples of institutional racism — and to address them with specific recommendations.

Currently, SPS disciplines African-American students at four times the rate of white students. In addition, Seattle is marred by de facto segregation: according to state statistics, the city’s three southernmost high schools — Rainier Beach, Franklin, and Cleveland — are made up of 97 percent, 94 percent, and 94 percent students of color, respectively.

Matt Carter, a special education teacher and union building rep at Franklin High School — as well as a SEE activist, member of SEA’s board of directors, and parent of a third and fifth grader at Orca K-8 — discussed the factors involved:

I’ve spent my entire 14 years in Seattle working in southeast schools. When I look at the discipline numbers — the number of kids suspended and expelled — it’s almost all African-American young men. Then you look at the rates up north, and if there are some, it’s the few kids of color up there. It’s so egregious and so obvious.

We’ve asked for an equity team in every school. They told us it was a great idea, but they only want to do it in 6 schools out of 97 schools in the district. We absolutely said no. There are equity problems in every single school.

The union is also demanding hard caseload caps for Education Staff Associates (ESAs, or school counselors and psychologists). In some schools, counselors are responsible for literally hundreds of students — and once again, due to institutional racism in Seattle schools, students of color are disproportionately affected. At one point in negotiations, SPS proposed hiring seven new ESAs for the entire district. But as a SEE flyer pointed out, this is a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed.

In addition, the union aims to reduce the use of standardized testing — and, in particular, to end the “Student Growth Rating” that ties the evaluations of teachers in tested subjects to their students’ exam scores.

The union is proposing a joint committee of representatives from SEA and SPS that would accept or reject any standardized tests beyond the federally mandated ones. Currently, students in Seattle Public Schools take some sixty standardized tests over the course of their K-12 careers.

The standardized tests also illustrate the racial equity gap in Seattle schools. SPS recently released preliminary data on the English Language Arts test for tenth graders. Garfield High School, with a score of 86 percent, was the only high school south of downtown to score above the SPS average of 79 percent. All of the other seven southern high schools scored between 27 percent and 76 percent. By contrast, all five high schools north of downtown scored between 86 percent and 94 percent.

Jeff Treistman, the school librarian at Denny International Middle School for the last ten years and a building rep for the last four, knows firsthand the devastating effect these tests have on students. When asked about the most important contract issue for him, he immediately answered:

For me, it’s over-testing. My library is closed up from April to the end of the school year as I watch class after class of kids coming in to test. I watch their body language. I’ve been observing this very closely for the last seven years. I’m telling you, this is crushing the spirit of the kids. It’s ridiculous.

The reason [SPS doesn’t] understand it is the people downtown don’t see what we see. They can’t see that week after week of this progression, it’s kind of like a Kafkaesque situation.

SEA isn’t just a union for teachers, counselors, and psychologists. It also represents office professionals (SAEOPS, the Seattle Association of Educational Office Professionals), and classified and clerical staff who help run the school, often behind the scenes. In an interview, one teacher described how the main office secretary kept the high school operating smoothly — without her, the principal would be lost. The union is calling for the district to increase staff pay — and to hire more people to reduce the current workload.

While many union members won’t cite pay increases as one of their top issues, there’s no question that SEA members deserve every penny they are demanding. By one measure, Seattle has the seventh-highest cost of living in the US.

SPS is proposing an 8.2 percent wage increase over the three-year life of the contract (along with the unpaid thirty minutes added to each school day). By contrast, the union wants a 6 percent wage hike in each year of the contract — an attempt to make up for the lack of cost-of-living increases the last six years. (According to reports, SPS negotiators have agreed to the union’s demand for higher pay for substitute teachers, though no details are yet available.)

It’s not like the district doesn’t have the money. Between additional state and levy funding — a partial product of the Washington Education Association’s series of one-day strikes throughout the state this spring — SPS has an extra $32 million to $40 million that it could spend to meet the SEA’s demands.

Jesse Hagopian, a social studies teacher at Garfield High School, a member of SEE, and one of the leaders of the successful testing boycott in 2013, commented on the breadth of demands his union brought to the bargaining table:

I’ve never seen our union put forward such an important set of demands to the school district. In the past, we’ve asked for so little, and we’ve gotten even less.

I think there’s a new mood in our union and a new level of organization. I think the work that Social Equality Educators has been doing for years, raising social justice unionism and social movement unionism issues, has finally translated into the union listing a set of demands that not only will help transform the public schools to make them better able to serve the needs of our kids, but also to connect with the families and communities we serve and support them on the issues they care most about.

The strike in Seattle is only the latest in a growing list of struggles across the country for the future of public education.

Teachers in Tacoma, WA walked out for several weeks in 2011. The Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012 demonstrated the power of united teacher action in one of the country’s biggest cities. And the testing boycott that began at Garfield High in 2013 sparked a national movement of parents, students, and teachers organizing against standardized testing.

The SEA strike also comes on the heels of two local teachers’ strikes. On Monday, ninety teachers in the South Whidbey Education Association ratified a new contract, ending a five-day work stoppage that shut down schools on Whidbey Island, just north of Seattle.

Meanwhile, teachers in the Pasco Association of Educators stood up to a Franklin County judge’s injunction to end their week-old strike in the southern Washington town. At a union meeting Monday night, almost 900 out of 1,100 members bravely voted to continue their walkout for a fair contract.

Back in Seattle, Ian Golash, a nine-year veteran social studies teacher at Chief Sealth International High School and an activist in SEE, summed up what he sees as the importance of the SEA strike:

I feel like this is a flash point right now in the broader union struggle. This is part of a concerted effort to try to test the union, and then break the union.

We’ve been working for years to build up to this point. This is our time to push back and build the power of unions generally, and this union in particular. Seattle could be an example. We’re following the example of Chicago in showing people how you fight back. For years, this union has been much more of a negotiating, concessionary union. Now we’ve managed to turn it a little bit toward power.

That contradiction between workers and employers is at the center of our society. We have to use that. This idea that you can collaborate with your employer and come to an agreement that’s good for everybody is bullshit. We’re starting to understand that. This is what shows it.