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Teachers’ Strikes Are Escalating in Washington

To win their walkouts for better pay and better schools, educators are defying court injunctions and district-organized strikebreaking across Washington state.

A teacher holds a sign at the Oklahoma Capital during the third day of the state's educators' strike, April 4, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Scott Heins / Getty

Washington teachers have taken the lead in spreading the public education strike wave to the so-called “blue states.” Inspired by the examples of West Virginia and Arizona, and emboldened by the Washington legislature’s court-mandated infusion of $2 billion into the school system, educators across the state have begun the school year with over a dozen successful strikes that have forced school board and superintendents to concede important pay increases ranging from 10 to 20 percent.

Yet a number of school districts remain recalcitrant — and have actually turned to repression to force their educators back to work.

With roughly 400 educators and 6,000 students, Tumwater, Washington is not a large school district. But the town’s work stoppage, begun on September 1, has important implications for the broader strike wave currently sweeping public education.

On Wednesday, September 12, a local judge declared the Tumwater walkout to be illegal and ordered educators back to the classroom. But immediately following the ruling, a two-and-a-half-hour mass union meeting overwhelmingly voted to defy the injunction by continue the strike. Tumwater Education Association President Tim Voie explained that they would not return to work until educators’ demands for better pay, lower class sizes, and safer classroom conditions were met:

While there is nothing we’d like more than to end this strike and be back where we are most comfortable, after a lot of individual reflection and group discussion, we’re not giving up on our students, our community and ourselves. We will go back to school when the district is ready to give us a fair and reasonable contract that will attract and retain great teachers and keep our students safe.

With classroom sizes often well over thirty to thirty-five, and an outflow of teachers to neighboring districts with better pay, many of the problems in Tumwater schools resemble those in West Virginia or Arizona. So too does the willingness of the town’s teachers to break the law in their fight for better schools and better pay.

Heated debates immediately erupted on social media following the decision of Tumwater teachers to continue striking. After a detractor named Betty Elliot exhorted teachers to “go do your job” — and posted “shame on you” for their defiance of the judge — teachers and their supporters responded as follows:

Cassie Culotta: The priorities are safer classrooms and smaller class sizes and better pay so all the wonderful teachers that have been here forever don’t want to leave. If you’re not ok with those things you’re the one with messed up priorities.

Betty Elliott: Well you’re not worth debating with. I have my opinion you have yours ….

Cassie Culotta: I’m worth more than you’ll ever know. … Get frustrated with the district! Bring your teachers some hot coffee or hand warmers, or lunch! They are doing this for their students. Believe it or not they would rather be in classrooms teaching than standing outside in the cold with signs in their hands.

If Tumwater’s school district is able to successfully use the courts to break the strike, politicians and administrators across the state — and the US — may be emboldened to do the same. Indeed, the district in nearby Tacoma yesterday issued a call to encourage scabbing and has likewise threatened legal action against its 2,000 striking educators.

Tacoma’s strike has already become one of the most contentious in the state. In a public act of protest, award-winning teacher Anne Hawking on Monday resigned from the district on Monday in a tear-filled video that has since gone viral online.

Administrators escalated the situation on Wednesday by issuing a memo and robocall to all school employees offering higher pay to any teacher willing to scab. The Tacoma Education Association (TEA) responded, “This is called strike-breaking. The district is trying to deny long-term wage gains by splitting union members who will leave our picket lines and go back into their classrooms.”

But like in Tumwater, strong public support for the strike has bolstered Tacoma strikers. Lincoln High Math teacher Sara Ketelsen told the local press, “I was on the (picket) line in 2011. It feels completely different. The community is 100 percent behind us.”

Social media on Wednesday was flooded with messages of solidarity for the teachers and calls to action to push back against the district:

Amanda Swarr: No scabs! Strength in unity!

Vince Kueter: It’s OK to use the S-word. Don’t be a scab. Ever.

Lynne Tiedeman: There needs to be lines at EVERY single site in the morning. What do you Say TEA???

Support has been particularly strong from other union members. Tacoma’s ILWU longshore workers have been vocal in solidarity, as have local nurses. As such, it’s fitting to give our final word to nurse Evan Howard, who responded to the district’s threats by posting the following message in support of Tacoma’s strikers:

Rock it out TEA! Stay strong. I was on a strike line with my nursing brethren and we stood tall and eventually got what we were entitled to. Do not let the smoke and mirror show deter you. These thieves will be rooted out and they will come to understand that the public at large is united in its support of teachers and support staff! You are the true classroom warriors.