Teacher strikes are illegal in Washington – but effective

In 2003, Washington state's longest-ever teacher strike dragged on in the Marysville School District, putting teachers and the district at odds for weeks.

Parent Stacy Thompson was infuriated.  “If my kid’s not back in school by Monday, I’m withdrawing her,” Thompson told KIRO 7 15 years ago.

After 50 days, Marysville teachers went back to class to comply with a judge’s back-to-work order.

According to Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters in Seattle, nearly two-thirds of the state's school districts are currently negotiating teacher salaries as the 2018-2019 school year begins.

Korsmo said this year, more money is available for districts because of the 2012 McCleary decision.

"There’s a lot more money, at least temporarily, on the table for salaries, so it’s high-stakes,” she told KIRO 7.

However, not all of that money is earmarked for teachers.

It's for all educational needs, which vary from district to district.

The “new money in the system” is causing all school districts across the state to discuss “what is the best and most thoughtful way to invest that money into what makes sense for their students, their families and their communities,” according to Jacob Vela, senior policy analyst at the League of Education Voters.

In many districts, those ongoing discussions include potential teacher strikes, which are illegal in the state of Washington.

“It’s not legal for teachers, or any public employee, to strike,” Rob McKenna told KIRO 7 on Wednesday.

McKenna is a former two-term attorney general for the state of Washington, now in private practice as a partner at Orrick in Seattle.

In 2006, McKenna authored the state's official opinion on the legality of strikes by state employees.

However, McKenna said state law does not impose any penalty for going out on strike.

“The way this has gone down in court is that, when a school district goes to court to ask the court to order the teachers back to work, every judge who’s ruled on it has said a strike is illegal,” McKenna explained.  However, “no judge has had any penalties to apply directly to the strikers.  At the same time, disobeying a court order to go back to work could be contempt of court, and that can have a fine.”

“In every case I’m aware of where a judge has ruled a strike is illegal, the teachers have gone back to work,” McKenna said.

Even though striking by state employees is illegal, it's an effective way to get the teachers' message across.  “It’s a high-leverage, high-profile, short-term strategy, and it works,” Korsmo said.

However, she believes the costs outweigh the benefits.

“I don’t know that anybody wins, to be honest.  All of these increases are temporary.  Students certainly don’t win.  Parents don’t win.  The teachers who want to be in the classroom don’t win,” Korsmo told KIRO 7.  She said she’d rather see “adults in the room figure out a way to align honoring and recognizing and paying our teachers alongside providing more opportunities and supports for our kids so they can be more successful.  Those things should go hand in hand.”

>> League of Education Voters Teacher Strike Facts

>> More information about the League of Education Voters  

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