OLYMPIA – Senate Republican leaders were mightily incensed last week when some teachers in some West Side districts decided to go out on “strike” to call for more state funding for public schools, which would include better pay and smaller class sizes.
Strike is a somewhat imprecise word for the one-day or partial-day walkouts, with some agreements to make up the hours away at some future point, sort of like a snow day. They are work stoppages, but that doesn’t really fit well in headlines.
These were not acts of civil disobedience, insisted Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler. These were actions that punish families, who had to rearrange their days to care for kids that should have been in class or after-school programs, he said.
“It should not be an easy decision that somebody can just throw a fit and go on strike,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-Vancouver.
At the start of their weekly press conference, Senate Republicans passed out a sheet containing a citation from state statutes that public employees have no right to refuse to perform their official duties, and a 2006 opinion by then-Attorney General Rob McKenna that public employees, including teachers, “have no legally protected right to strike.”
“Local prosecutors, the attorney general, somebody at some point has to say ‘Enough!’ ” said Schoesler, R-Ritzville. “I think we need an attorney general who would actually enforce the law. We weren’t having strikes during the McKenna era.”
That last was either revisionist history or wishfully misremembered halcyon days when the state’s top legal beagle shared their party affiliation. Because Washington did have some teacher strikes when McKenna was AG: Bethel, 2007; Bellevue, 2008; Kent, 2009; Tacoma, 2011.
They were the “normal” kinds of strikes. That is, the teachers and their respective school districts failed to reach agreement on a contract, and at some point – usually just before the school year was to start – the teachers voted to not work until they got a deal.
In none of those cases did the attorney general’s office step in. The reason for that is also clear in McKenna’s 2006 opinion: State law has no specific penalties for a teacher strike. Courts can issue an injunction in an effort to prevent or end the unlawful strike.
Usually, the school district’s attorney went to court, where a judge typically ordered teachers back to the classroom because they didn’t have a legal right to strike. Sometimes they went back, sometimes they didn’t. Eventually, a contract deal was reached and school resumed.
That strategy would be particularly ineffective in the rolling one-day strikes. By the time the school district’s attorney gets to court, explains the situation and persuades the judge to order teachers back to work, their attorney could say “No problem, they’ll be in the classroom tomorrow.”
The Legislature could put some penalties into statutes for public employee strikes, McKenna said in 2006, “provided that such laws are consistent with protected free speech and other state and federal constitutional guarantees.”
So far, it either has not seen fit to do that, or has not devised a penalty that meets the rather basic standard of being constitutional. But Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Potlatch Democrat who caucuses with the majority Republicans, introduced a proposal on the eve of the special session that would make it illegal for teachers or other employees to receive pay or benefits during strikes or work stoppages.
It might get a hearing in the Commerce and Labor Committee, Schoesler said.
Senate Republicans’ call to action from other elected officials seemed to fall on unresponsive ears.
McKenna’s replacement, Democrat Bob Ferguson, declined to volley back. “Our office does not represent school districts,” a spokeswoman said in an email. “Questions are best addressed to local governments and their counsel.”
Seeking penalties for the work stoppages would “be a diversion from what the state really needs,” Gov. Jay Inslee said, which is a budget that meets state Supreme Court mandates to put adequate money into public schools. He sided with teachers, calling their frustration understandable: “Adequate funding is, over the long term, more important than griping about a one-day protest.”
All this occurs as legislators grapple with how much more to give public schools, and how to give it to them. The final number will almost certainly be followed by “billion.” This is part of the Senate Republicans’ ire: They have proposed upping school funding by a 10-figure sum, pushing it to the biggest share of the general fund since the 1980s. Yet they are back in special session, unable to reach agreement with House Democrats, who are proposing to spend more, and face the unsavory prospect of rearranging the state’s property tax levy system, which will result in a tax increase for at least some state residents as a way to remove a threatened Supreme Court citation.
No wonder they’d like the teachers to pipe down and get back in the classroom.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.