With teachers’ strikes having been resolved and students having returned to class and some normalcy having been restored in the Camas and Evergreen school districts, it is time for the Legislature to get involved.
Camas teachers agreed to a new contract last week, allowing the school year to commence following a six-day strike. This past weekend, Evergreen teachers agreed to a new deal, ending a nearly two-week walkout that delayed the start of the school year. And in Battle Ground, teachers have not agreed to a new contract but have not gone on strike.
All of which shines a spotlight on Washington law. As The Columbian reported in 2018: “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 Revised Code of Washington, section 41.56.120 states, “Nothing contained in this chapter shall permit or grant any public employee the right to strike or refuse to perform his or her official duties.”
To clarify that provision, a formal opinion issued by Attorney General Rob McKenna in 2006 said, “state and local public employees, including teachers, have no legally protected right to strike.” Judges have routinely upheld that opinion while declining to impose penalties against striking teachers.
School districts may seek an injunction to prevent or end a strike. From 1976-2018, according to The Columbian, Washington saw 78 teachers strikes; injunctions were filed in 25 of those, but teachers defied the injunctions in 12 of those cases and remained off the job.
In 2016, Evergreen Public Schools filed for an injunction against its teachers union when contract negotiations threatened to delay the start of school. A Clark County Superior Court judge 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.
For their part, teachers’ unions correctly point out that a strike often is their only recourse when contract negotiations reach an impasse. In the Camas district this year, negotiations continued for more than three months, focusing on three primary issues: Pay, class sizes and funding for programs such as music and physical education.
When the school year draws near, teachers would lose bargaining power if prohibitions against public-employee strikes were enforced. Monica Stonier is an educator in the Evergreen district who participated in this month’s strike and also is a state representative from the 49th Legislative District. She told media outlet Washington State Standard, “We have to use our organizing as a strategy to advocate for what we know kids need.”
A sense of fairness dictates that public employees should have the right to strike, lest they be rendered powerless in the collective bargaining process. But that does not mitigate the fact that strikes are illegal in Washington or the fact that state law is not being enforced. Such nonenforcement diminishes the rule of law that provides the structure of a civilized society.
In 12 states — including Oregon — teacher strikes are explicitly legal. Washington should either follow the lead of those jurisdictions or specify penalties for strikes that violate state law. Either scenario would be preferable to having a state law that is ignored.