The Teachers Strike Wave in Washington

The start of the school year saw this year's teachers strikes spread to Washington. Teachers across the state defied court injunctions and won large raises — and set the stage for a potential strike in Los Angeles.

Tumwater Education Association members at Tumwater Hill Elementary. Olymbia Education Association / Facebook

Fifteen districts started the school year on strike in Washington state — the latest to ride the West Virginia wave.

“For my whole life I thought this was just the way it was, that I would have to struggle to have a sustainable life,” said Anna Cockrum, a teacher in Evergreen, out on her first picket line. “I teach students to stand up for themselves, and it is so cool to be living that.

Evergreen teachers walked for almost two weeks before agreeing to raises averaging 11.5 percent, considerably more than the district’s initial 1.9 percent offer. Battle Ground and Tumwater were the last to settle, after more than two weeks out.

Educators were demanding salary increases in line with the implementation of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision. In 2012 the court ruled that the state was not meeting its constitutional obligation “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.”

The decision required the state to come up with a plan to address the chronic underfunding of public schools. But the legislature kept stalling.

Teachers launched rolling strikes in 2015 to push for the additional funding. Three years ago, the court held the state in contempt and issued fines of $100,000 a day for failure to comply with its ruling.

Finally, six years after the initial ruling, the legislature has addressed the last of the court requirements and approved a budget that included an additional $2 billion in funding specifically for educators’ salaries.

Contracts for both teachers and support staff were opened statewide to bargain for these increases.

All at Once

Locals bargain individually. Across the state there was a wide disparity in initial offers, from 1.9 percent in Evergreen to as much as 30 percent in some districts.

The formula to distribute the $2 billion was based on local salaries and property values. That meant suburban districts got more of the new funding, while poor and urban districts got less.

The Washington Educators Association, which represents the vast majority of K-12 educators in the state, encouraged members to demand significant raises — upwards of 15 percent for teachers and 30 percent for support staff.

The union supported the strikes, publishing updates on its website, joining solidarity rallies, and adding staff to embattled locals, according to Richard Wood, a WEA communications staffer.

But the possibility for coordinated statewide action was lost, said Jesse Hagopian, a Seattle high school teacher active in the Social Equity Educators caucus. “It would have been great for the statewide union to say, ‘We want to bargain all of these together,’” he said, “because it is such a unique situation with the infusion of funding.”

Seattle, the state’s largest district, was one of at least two dozen where teachers voted to authorize strikes. The union reached a tentative agreement just in time to start school. Members ratified it a few days later with 83 percent support.

Caucus members were frustrated that the district’s final offer of 10.3 percent was well below the state average — in a city where the cost of living was already driving teachers to other districts.

Center of Attention

Despite the lack of statewide coordination, bargaining all at the same time had an upside. The topic drew media interest. Community members and teachers alike were alert to the new funding and what it would mean.

As teachers reached deals in some districts — with or without strike authorizations — anger rose in the districts where management was stonewalling, bringing paltry offers, and making false claims about the funds available.

“I have never seen such an informed membership in [my] twelve years in this district,” said Shannon Ergun, a bargaining-team member in Tacoma.

All this attention threw into relief a lack of transparency from leaders in some locals — usually because they had agreed to ground rules that prevented them from disclosing bargaining details.

In North Thurston, teacher Megan Little couldn’t find out much about offers and counteroffers on the table. Finally, at a general meeting, after the bargaining team shared as much information as possible within the ground rules, members voted 98 percent to authorize a strike.

A tentative agreement quickly followed. Watching all this unfold made her realize that “membership cannot act if they don’t have the information,” Little said. She saw her union leaders too coming to realize that “the relationship [of collaboration] with the district that they were working so hard to preserve was not realistic.’’

Defiant Mood

In Battle Ground and Tumwater, defying court injunctions that ordered them back to work, teachers voted overwhelmingly to stay out on strike. Both districts settled within days after that.

Tacoma teachers struck for a week, furious at a 3.1 percent raise offer. The district offered bonus pay to anyone who crossed the picket line. Anne Hawkins, who was selected last year as one of Tacoma’s “unforgettable teachers,” protested by submitting her resignation.

“When I realized that the district was not going to pass along the McCleary money and looked at my salary increases compared to the salaries downtown, I just couldn’t do it,” she said. Among the district’s ten largest school districts, Tacoma has the highest administrative expenses. Salaries for its senior executives have soared in recent years.

Tacoma teachers finally ratified a tentative agreement with 14.5 percent increases for teachers and 19 percent increases for office professionals. They also reduced the work year from 190 to 185 days.

General Exuberance

Educators were buoyed by what Tacoma Longshore (ILWU) worker Zack Pattin described as “massive shows of support.”

Picket lines and rallies attracted longshore workers, Teamsters, firefighters, carpenters, health care workers, electricians, and school marching bands.

Facebook videos from the picket lines displayed strikers’ general exuberance. Shahala teachers and staff, for instance, reworked Meghan Trainor’s song “All about That Bass” into “All about Fair Wages.”

Ellsworth Elementary educators turned ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” into a “Red for Ed” anthem. Battle Ground teachers made a three-minute lip-sync of “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

Most of the contracts in Washington will be open again next year. While salaries were the focus this year, ongoing issues such a class size are likely to draw more attention next time.

With a possible teacher strike on the horizon in Los Angeles this fall, we can expect this wave to continue to build. A recent national poll by PDK, which polls attitudes toward public schools, found that 73 percent of the public would support a strike by teachers in their area for higher pay.