Two things go hand in hand with late summer heat: Labor Day and the start of the new school year. This school year finds leaders of the teachers’ labor union, the Washington Education Association (WEA) creating heat by promoting a strike in order to dramatize WEA demands (despite the fact that a call for a statewide strike was voted down by WEA members at the WEA Representative Assembly, April 2002). Northwest Professional Educators believes teachers ought to think about a few things before they drop their textbooks and pick up picket signs, however. The costs of such a labor action might far outweigh any benefits.
Besides obvious harms to the public good, teachers should consider that a strike is contrary to Washington law. The WEA agreed to the statute (RCW 41.59) as written and has never objected since. It was codified in 1975 as a part of the Educational Employment Relations Act and contains adequate provision for settlement of labor disputes involving public employees while prohibiting strikes.
The Board of Directors in districts where teachers strike may go Superior Court and apply for an injunction, an order from the Court, directing striking teachers to return to school. Such injunctions may include fines or other sanctions. Teachers who ignore them risk arrest for contempt of court and additional fines. Teachers who refuse to return could be deemed to be in breach of their employment agreement with dismissal a possibility. Striking teachers might sit in jail on contempt charges contemplating hefty fines and may even be fired.
We teach respect for the rule of law in our schools but as teachers do we model it? Don’t teachers who choose to flout state law (by striking in violation of the very laws we urge our students to observe) actually undermine one of the basic principles of our society? Wouldn’t it be better to comply with the law while seeking less harmful ways of negotiating raises, such as binding arbitration?
Teachers should also consider the timing of this strike call. Washington State is experiencing an economic crisis (which is causing cuts in children’s and elderly services among other programs). There have also been severe layoffs in many private sector businesses. Would a job action by teachers erode the respect that they enjoy because of a lack of perspective regarding economic reality? Will this make the public less likely to tolerate an illegal strike that disrupts their families and communities?
Incredibly, some School Boards, such as Issaquah’s, are actually considering closing down their schools in response to union strike threats. It is outrageous that those hired and elected to protect students and provide them with uninterrupted educations may actually cooperate in coercive work stoppage tactics! Does anyone take their responsibilities to children seriously anymore? Shouldn’t students take priority over “friendly relations” among education’s power brokers?
Finally, ask yourself why teachers should stand for this strike talk at all! Union representatives voted down the call for a strike, yet WEA raised dues to fund a PR campaign to promote the threat of strike. So, just whom would a strike serve? While the union raises dues for more politics and PR, member services suffer as illustrated by the following examples. Since 1995 WEA has asked locals to represent teachers based on whether their cases advance WEA’s goals and core values—not on the teacher’s right to representation for dues paid. Numerous teachers report that the union advised that they resign rather than help them with their issues. At Columbia Basin College , WEA actually negotiated contract language that would have the school pay the union president a $5,000 salary bonus for keeping grievances to a minimum!
These ominous union trends, in addition to WEA’s numerous convictions, have propelled teachers to establish Northwest Professional Educators. NWPE places students over politics and self interest and provides job protection teachers can count on—such as liability insurance with benefits for legal fees. Union representatives have discouraged members from getting personal legal advice. Northwest Professional Educators facilitates teachers getting the help they need.
Northwest Professional Educators views students as our highest priority. We discourage strikes and work stoppages, because they interrupt students’ rights to an uninterrupted education focused on their needs. I urge all teachers who care about fulfilling their moral obligations to follow the law and put students first. They’re watching us, after all.
—Ed Dawson, President of Northwest Professional Educators (www.nwpe.org), is a high school German and Spanish teacher in Battle Ground School District, Vancouver, WA . He has a law degree from Western State University, College of Law, and taught Personnel Management at Yavapai College, Prescott, AZ.