It’s official: Teachers and school staff in Seattle voted to authorize a strike Tuesday evening. The strike could take effect if negotiations with Seattle Public Schools don’t result in a tentative contract by the first day of school, Sept. 5.
The vote followed perhaps the state’s first official strikes that disrupted the first day of school in two southwest Washington districts Tuesday; teachers in four additional Clark County districts will join the picket lines Wednesday. This year’s hectic negotiation season comes at the hands of a major shift in the state’s model of paying for public education.
In downtown Seattle, about 2,000 educators piled into Benaroya Hall for the vote, which took place during a general membership meeting of the Seattle Education Association (SEA), the union that represents roughly 6,000 Seattle school employees.
Negotiations over teacher pay, health benefits for some workers and efforts to increase racial equity in classrooms appeared to gain momentum earlier in August, but the union proposed the strike authorization vote after a deal was not reached by Aug. 25, SEA’s deadline for a tentative contract.
“They just ran out of time,” SEA President Phyllis Campano said early Tuesday. “There couldn’t be a disagreement because the conversation didn’t go far enough.”
Teachers in Seattle last went on strike in 2015. The five-day walkout ended in an all-night round of negotiations — that’s why the district and the union are taking a less-adversarial approach to bargaining this year. Instead of each party bringing its demands to the table for debate, the parties talk through their interests extensively and try to arrive at a deal together, said Shelly Hurley, a member of SEA’s bargaining team who also works as a teacher mentor here.
“At the beginning of the compensation conversation, both sides talked without any numbers being thrown around at all. It was just listening,” Hurley said. More recently, according to Hurley, the district has proposed different salary schedule models in response to some of the concerns voiced by SEA members, but hasn’t made a formal offer.
Tuesday’s union meeting started about 50 minutes late after a few computers used for registration crashed, creating a line of union members that covered almost an entire city block. Despite the wait, the energy was high. Most attendees wore red, traditional attire for union members.
About six people interviewed while waiting to enter said they would vote to authorize the strike, citing the high cost of living. When asked how much they think their salaries should increase, most said they’d like to see Seattle align with the double-digit raises offered by such neighboring districts as Bellevue or Shoreline.
Under their current contract, Seattle teachers earn between $50,600 and $100,800. Neighboring districts already have struck deals with their teachers unions to provide salaries ranging from $53,000 to $111,100 in Bellevue; $55,900 to $113,000 in Lake Washington; and $62,100 to $120,200 in Shoreline.
“I have $40,000 in debt I have to pay off for my master’s degree, and I make about $50,000 a year,” said Barbara Zambano, a Spanish dual-language instructor at Concord International Elementary School. She rents a room in a house to keep costs low and remain in the city.
In the meeting, which was closed to journalists, the crowd grew impatient and yelled for a vote several times, several teachers present told The Times. The union’s bargaining team took questions from members and summarized the issues covered during recent bargaining sessions, according to those teachers.
In a statement, the district said it could not provide details on negotiations, but did note that negotiators have met for 176 hours over 22 sessions and remain in touch daily. “We remain optimistic that school will begin on time,” the statement read.
If teachers do strike, that would mean new Superintendent Denise Juneau’s first back-to-school season would be marred by walkouts. “We are optimistic there will be a positive resolution for staff, students and families,” Juneau said in a statement.
In addition to a new salary schedule, Seattle’s negotiators are specifically bargaining over health-care benefits for substitute teachers and more professional development for para-educators.
How did we get here? Across the state, teacher contract negotiations have been particularly fraught this summer following the Washington Legislature’s decision to dismantle the way it pays for K-12 schools.
Last year, lawmakers approved a 2017-19 budget that would increase the statewide property-tax rate to pay for higher teacher and other school staff salaries over two years. They chose those changes in an effort to satisfy the settlement of a decadelong school-funding case known as McCleary. At the same time, lawmakers slashed the local property-tax collections that districts had long relied on to provide competitive wages.
But in late 2017, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously ruled that lawmakers had not gone far enough to satisfy the McCleary decision and ordered the state to accelerate its plan to provide more money for salaries by Sept. 1, 2018, at the latest. The Legislature conceded, but left school districts and their labor unions with just about five months to collectively bargain an extra $1 billion for teacher pay before the summer break ended.
So, what’s next? In Seattle, the parties have another bargaining meeting scheduled for Wednesday – seven days before students and their teachers are officially expected back in school.
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