Teacher strikes are illegal in Washington state, but they still happen. And the reality is, while strikes may be illegal, there’s no law setting penalties against public employees who do strike.
In the midst of ongoing contract negotiations between school districts and their unions, members of the Ridgefield, Vancouver, Washougal, Hockinson and Battle Ground districts have overwhelmingly voted to strike. The Evergreen Education Association and Camas Education Association could do the same in the coming days.
School districts hold firm to their claim that teacher strikes are illegal in Washington, and it appears the law is on their side. According to the nonpartisan advocacy group, the League of Education Voters, state law prohibits any public employee from striking. Furthermore, a 2006 opinion from then-Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, said public employees, including teachers, do not have a legally protected right to strike.
“There is no murkiness. There is no gray area,” said Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think-tank.
Yet historically, strikes still happen. According to that same McKenna opinion, no Washington law establishes penalties against teachers who decide to strike.
In short, state law against public employee strikes is toothless. A Superior Court judge can issue an injunction ordering teachers back to work at the request of a school district or community group and level penalties against unions who defy that court order, but fines and punishments aren’t standardized.
According to data from the Public Employment Relations Commission, Washington has seen 78 school districts strike since 1976. Injunctions were filed in 25 of those. But in 12 of those historic strikes, teachers defied the injunctions and continued demonstrating.
“We know strikes happen in Washington,” said Bill Beville, president of the Evergreen Education Association. “Judges have not ruled completely whether strikes are illegal.”
It’s been decades since teachers in a Clark County school district have held a strike.
In 2016, Evergreen Public Schools, under the leadership of then-Superintendent John Deeder, filed for an injunction against its teachers union to stop members from striking when contract negotiations threatened to delay the start of school. Clark County Superior Court Judge Suzan Clark that year issued a temporary restraining order requiring the district’s teachers to stay on the job through the first day of school.
Teachers ultimately ratified a contract before the start of school.
Thus far, no school districts in Southwest Washington have filed for legal action against their teachers unions.
“Superintendents of school boards who take their teachers to court generally are on the wrong track,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association. “It’s a losing strategy for them.”