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9 Sep, 2015 16:01

School's out! Seattle teachers stage 1st strike in 30 years for higher pay

School's out! Seattle teachers stage 1st strike in 30 years for higher pay

Summer break just got extended for 53,000 students in Seattle, Washington, as a teachers’ union went on strike for the first time in 30 years. The city’s school board is claiming the strike is illegal and seeking a court order to force the teachers back to work.

Talks between the Seattle Educators Association (SEA) and the school board broke down Tuesday night. The SEA, which represents 5,000 teachers and school support staff, said it was planning to picket all 97 of the city’s schools starting Wednesday.

At the heart of the dispute was the teachers’ complaint they had not received a cost-of-living pay raise in five years, even as Seattle became one of the most expensive US cities. The union was asking for a total of $172 million for its members, and rejected the school board’s $62 million counter-offer as insulting.

"The district administration's wage proposal barely budged from previous offers: 2 percent this year, 3.2 percent next year, and 3.75 percent the following year, when certificated staff would begin working 30 minutes longer. The SEA pay proposal is 6 percent a year," SEA president Jonathan Knapp said.

"Nobody really wants to strike, but at this point the school board has not come to the table with a serious proposal to get it done," added Phyllis Campano, SEA vice president.

Following SEA’s decision to abandon the talks and go on strike, the School Board passed a resolution to seek a court injunction against the union, calling the strike illegal.

“A strike for any reason by District teachers or other personnel is harmful and damaging to the District, our students, and our community,” the board resolution said.

The resolution was adopted after three of the City Council members urged the board to refrain from going to the courts. While they considered the union’s demands reasonable and in the best interest of students, “regardless of one’s opinions on the union’s demands, the educators’ democratic right to speak out, organize unions, and go on strike must be defended,” Socialist Kshama Sawant and Democrats Nick Licata and John Okamoto said in a statement.

State statutes are ambivalent on whether the strike is legal or not. The state’s Educational Employment Relations Act doesn't say anything about striking. Other state laws explicitly forbid “uniformed” public employees from going on strike, but that hardly applies to teachers.

"The statute is silent, or agnostic, on whether the strikes are legal or illegal," labor lawyer Jim Cline told The Stranger, a Seattle newspaper. "What the statute doesn't do is give employees affirmative protection. So they could be fired, but it doesn't necessarily mean the strike is illegal."

School funding in Washington State has been in trouble for several years. In 2012, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers had failed to provide adequate funding for the state’s 1 million school children, relying instead on local property taxes to make up for shortcomings in the state budget. The SEA protested the funding problems with a one-day strike in May this year.

"This is a textbook case of what results from a profoundly broken K-12 funding model in Washington State," Sherry Carr, president of the Seattle School Board, said following the strike announcement.

Seattle public schools have announced the closing for Wednesday, and offered child care tips and suggestions to parents of the 53,000 schoolchildren affected by the strike, in case it goes on for a while. The last time SEA went on strike over contract issues, in 1985, school was out for three weeks.