Tacoma teachers defy injunction to strike

September 16, 2011

Dan Trocolli, a teacher and member of the Seattle Education Association, reports on the high stakes in a struggle of fellow teachers in Tacoma.

TEACHERS IN the Tacoma Education Association (TEA) voted September 15 by a 93 percent margin to continue their strike and defy a judge's order to return to work. The strike began after a TEA union meeting September 12, when 87 percent of the approximately 1,900 TEA members voted to strike a week after the start of school.

At the heart of the impasse is the issue of the use of seniority in teacher displacements and transfers.

Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, a teacher at Lincoln High School, says a proposed 10-part formula that the district wants to use in layoffs is subjective and can lead to favoritism. "Given the current status of evaluations in the district--abysmal and sometimes completely fabricated--we find using them as the basis for job assignment untenable," he said. "I recognize seniority is flawed, but it's transparent. Whatever we transition to needs to be equally transparent."

For example, among the district's proposal for criteria on the evaluations is "Contributing to school effectiveness through collaboration with others." TEA members described that as the "not a good building fit" clause.

Striking teachers in Tacoma, Wash., have defied a judge's order
Striking teachers in Tacoma, Wash., have defied a judge's order (Darrin Hoop | SW)

Other sticking points are pay decreases and class size. Initially, the district sought a two-student increase in class size, though they have since withdrawn that proposal. But district officials refuse to budge on the TEA's demand to lower class size by one student.

Also shaping this struggle is Washington state's decision to cut its funds targeted for teacher pay by 1.9 percent. However, individual school districts retain the ability to choose how to impose that reduction. For its part, Tacoma Public Schools (TPS) has proposed a choice between taking away personal days or cutting the salary schedule to achieve that reduction.

Neighboring districts have agreed with unions to implement furlough days. Some districts even completely covered the deficit of state money with their own reserve funds. But though TPS has the largest reserves in the state--some $45 million--the district is refusing to use that money to avoid pay cuts for teachers.

AS SOON as the strike began, TPS was in court seeking an injunction to force teachers back to work. On September 14, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff issued a temporary restraining order forcing the two sides back to the bargaining table. According to Reuters, the judge mandated teachers "to report to work and to discharge their assigned employment responsibilities in accordance with the school calendar and individual employment contracts."

What you can do

You can post a message of support to striking teachers at the We Teach Tacoma Facebook page. For updates on the strike, visit the We Teach Tacoma website.

While lawyers from their union were busy interpreting the language of the restraining order, TEA members continued to walk the picket line the afternoon of September 15 and the following morning before voting to continue the strike.

As the Associated Press noted, while public employee strikes are not protected in Washington, the state legislature has not explicitly banned them. In court, TPS argued that "19 different judges in Washington state have ruled teacher strikes illegal since 1976." The union has countered that the district hasn't bargained in good faith, and that "the court should not inject itself into the bargaining process, while also suggesting the injunction only applies to union leaders."

TEA members on the picket lines were resolute. "If we have to do what we have to do to get what's in the best interests of the kids, I'll do what I have to do," said Deb Sanford, a 6th grade science teacher at First Creek Middle School. "I'll take the consequences whatever they may be. But I'm willing to do that or I wouldn't be here."

Another teacher, preferring to remain anonymous, went further: "They used the injunction as a way to scare the teachers to see if we were going to break. We're not breaking, because right is right and wrong is wrong. Times are too hard. We shouldn't have to teach under those conditions."

For its part, the district has been intransigent from the start, hiring an outside negotiator at the beginning of contract talks. It has also used robo-calls to update teachers and family members on the status of bargaining, but many teachers claim these robo-calls have spread mistruths about the union.

Support from the community, students and parents was evident from honks from passersby and supporters on the picket line. "The parents of the students I work with are able to connect the dots and see how this is an attack," said Gibbs-Bowling, the Lincoln High School teacher. "I had a mother whose son Nick is in my largest class, over thirty students, come walk the line with us. There were, throughout the day, dozens of parents and students with us."

Commenting on the TEA website, WeTeachTacoma.org, teachers summed up the importance of the strike. "We cannot be effective teachers if we are in a state of constant anxiety about our job security," wrote Barbara Vlcek.

One teacher from Wisconsin commented on the website about the importance of the strike:

As you know, you're not fighting for only yourselves, but also the kids in your classrooms. Your working conditions are their classroom conditions, and if these sorts of school board policies and tactics are carried out, the face of education is going to change quickly from one of diverse experience and skills to one that's young, inexperienced and quickly burned-out. That's not what I want my son to experience in his school, and it's not what I want any of you to have to see. Keep on fighting! This is important, and we're all in it together!

The strike took place after the opening of the school year because of a TEA union bylaw that requires an astronomical 80 percent vote of favor of strike--under this year, the initial strike vote failed by 28 votes. Consequently, Tacoma teachers began the school year without a contract.

The district apparently believed that more teachers would be reluctant to strike. However, teachers recognized the importance of defending seniority, and many feel that the additional time taken to achieve the 80 percent margin was worth it, as it gave them additional solidarity.

TEA members will need to maintain that solidarity to continue to pressure the district and defend their seniority. They deserve the support of students, other teachers, union members and activists everywhere.

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