One of the overriding principles that has guided the United States for 224 years is the fact that we are a nation of laws. Not rule by military junta or political change by force of coup, but laws that govern us and are used to resolve disputes.
This becomes relevant when considering the situation in Tacoma, where Tacoma Public Schools teachers have been on strike since Sept. 12. The strike — over issues such as pay, class size and the handling of job transfers — has idled 28,000 students in the state’s third-largest school district.
And by continuing their strike, the teachers have blatantly ignored the rule of law.
On Sept. 14, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff ordered teachers to return to work. The teachers responded by voting to remain on strike in defiance of the judge’s order.
On Monday, Chushcoff said he is considering whether to give the district the option of replacing teachers. To which the obvious question is: Why wait?
If teachers willfully ignore a court order, they should do so with the knowledge that they can be replaced. According to a 2006 state attorney general’s opinion, state and local public employees have no legally protected right to strike. According to arguments offered by district officials in court, since 1976, 19 different judges in Washington state have ruled that teacher strikes are illegal.
The problem, however, as noted by the attorney general’s opinion, is that state law lacks specific penalties for striking public employees.
That is where the system has failed, leaving officials with no recourse other than, “Don’t do that or we’ll say ‘don’t do that’ again.” The legislature must work to close this loophole, asserting in no uncertain terms that such illegal action will carry specific penalties, up to and including termination. If the public feels this is too harsh and that teachers should have the right to strike, then let that be codified into law.
As it stands right now, however, a toothless law simply exacerbates the situation. Students are left idle, days might be added to the school year, and teachers are sending a counterproductive message that if you disagree with a court order, you should simply ignore it. If teachers choose to thumb their nose at the law, they should pay the penalty — just as students would be expected to do if they broke the law.
Threat to society
We can’t say whether or not the teachers in Tacoma have legitimate complaints that need to be hashed out in bargaining sessions. As with every other school district throughout Washington, they have faced pay cuts or layoffs because of diminishing funds provided by the state. But we can say with certainty that violating a judge’s order without consequences is a threat to our society. When the rule of law breaks down, it diminishes us all.
The situation calls to mind the 1981 strike by federal air traffic controllers, represented by the PATCO union. President Reagan ordered them back to work, citing a law that banned strikes by government employee unions. The workers refused. Reagan fired them. The decision is regarded as a watershed moment in Reagan’s presidency.
While we aren’t ready to advocate the firing of the teachers in Tacoma, we do believe the district should have that option. In speaking about the possibility of allowing the district to replace teachers, Judge Chushcoff said it would be up to administrators to determine whether they wanted to hire temporary replacements, hire permanent replacements, or devise some alternative plan.
Without these options, the law is ineffectual, and that can have far-reaching and long-lasting negative consequences.