UPDATE: Seattle teachers did not come to a settlement with the school district last night, and teachers walked off the job this morning.
The Seattle Education Association, representing 5,000 teachers in Seattle Public Schools, voted to strike unanimously last Thursday, declaring that they will not be working the first day of school on September 9 if an agreement between the district and the union cannot be reached.
“There was incredible passion around the issues tonight,” SEA Vice-President and bargaining team chair Phyllis Campano told In These Times after the unanimous vote. “It really, truly is about caring for our kids and what’s right for our kids. We don’t want to strike, but we feel that’s our only option right now.”
After participating in over 20 meetings with the school board since starting negotiations in May, their contract expired on August 31. The union’s proposals contain a wide variety of social justice-based demands.
Campano has said that SEA will be the first large union in the country to attempt to include a set amount of recess time in bargaining, asking the district for at least 30 minutes a day, a decrease from earlier demands of 45 minutes. Union members argue that the lack of protections for a set amount of time for recess has schools fluctuating between an hour and as a little 15 minutes a day for recess. The schools most likely to have shorter recess times are those attended predominantly by low-income students or students of color. A 2013 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics calls recess time crucial, saying, “Recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development.”
SEA is looking to cement an end to the ties between student test scores and teacher evaluations, and hopes any agreement includes the union in any test-scheduling decisions. SEA’s proposals are bolstered by the fact that Seattle is home to a burgeoning local opt-out movement that has energized students, parents, and teachers toward school-wide test boycotts at several sites in recent years.
Another crucial point for SEA is the fully-funded creation of institutional space for race and equity teams at each school site, aiming to, through team-led training, decrease punitive punishment that has disproportionately affected students of color. “At some schools such as Seattle’s Washington Middle — where, despite comparable populations, 94 African-American kids were disciplined and just seven whites — the data is so lopsided that confrontation with uncomfortable questions becomes difficult to avoid,” the Seattle Times reported in June.
“Today is the beginning of a break [from a] failed model of partnership unionism, and moving towards social movement unionism,” says Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher who led a test boycott movement at his site, Garfield High, in 2013. “Our bargaining team has put forward an incredible list of demands for the school district, and I think the reason why they have put forward a social justice platform of demands is because of the social justice educators inside the union.”
While the union and district have been able to come to agreement on 30 minutes of guaranteed recess since the strike was called, the biggest deal-breaker in negotiations has been the district’s reluctance and hedging on meeting SEA’s goals for compensation. With no cost-of-living increases in 6 years, or increases in health care funding in 5 years, many teachers have seen a loss in compensation over that time. But last week, according to the union, the district made matters worse for the union as it began demanding an extra 30 minutes per school day, with little assurance of a higher salary. This proved to be the breaking point that led to scheduling the strike vote, according to Campano, who stressed that the district has $40 million in extra funding that could go towards increasing pay and benefits.
“When school boards ignore the needs of their students, and absolutely refuse to act in the best interest of their students, sometimes all educators can do is to withhold their services,” SEA president Jonathan Knapp said in an September 6th op-ed for the Seattle Times. “When that happens, I am proud that educators have the strength to stand in unity and solidarity with the children they serve.”
SEA last walked out earlier this year in May, participating in a 65-district, 40,000 teacher-large rolling strike wave, protesting the state legislature’s failure to achieve court-mandated, and voter-approved class size reductions. Six thousand teachers and supporters marched through downtown Seattle to support the one-day walkout. SEA activist Susan DuFresne told In These Times at the time that the strike could be “placed at the tipping point in the struggle between progressive education reform and corporate education reform.”
Because the legislature has since failed to implement the court-ordered increases in funding, the Washington state supreme court began fining the legislature $100,000 a day on August 13 until it funnels the required amount into education coffers, making it the first time the court has ever sanctioned the state, according to Joseph O’Sullivan of the Seattle Times. Some lawmakers have shown a lack of urgency in return, finding any financial penalty paltry compared to the multi-billion-dollar price tag attached to increasing education funding in the tax-light state.
“We’re tired of being disrespected, and we’re tired of seeing a district with enough resources, willfully withhold those resources and refuse to create a school system that our students deserve,” says Hagopian. “I’ll go back to work when they start respecting students and teachers.”