Kent teacher strike places union members between a rock and a hard place

Kent teacher strike places union members between a rock and a hard place

Kent teacher strike places union members between a rock and a hard place

As summer draws to a close, parents around Washington state are readying their children for the return to school. For families of the 25,000 students in the Kent School District, however, school will start a little later than anticipated.

On Thursday — what was to be the first day of school — teachers walked out on strike amid the Kent Education Association’s (KEA) continued negotiations with the district over a new collective bargaining agreement.

KEA members voted to authorize the strike at a meeting on Monday. In comments to the Seattle Times, KEA president Layla Jones projected near unanimity among teachers, noting that 94 percent of KEA members at the meeting supported striking. The true level of support for the strike is hard to gauge, however, since not all the union’s members participated in the meeting and an unknown number of Kent educators who are not union members were automatically excluded from participation.  

It’s also unclear if the KEA informed its members of the risks associated with going on strike.

Strikes by teachers and other public employees are clearly illegal under Washington law. In the past, striking teachers and union officials have faced fines and other penalties for walking out on their students.

In an article on this week’s strike, the Seattle Times reported that,

“Kent educators last went on strike in 2009. The strike lasted 15 days, and to end it, the school district sought an injunction to force teachers back to work. A King County Superior Court judge ruled the union would be fined $1,500 a day and teachers would be fined $200 a day if the strike continued.”

Further, Section 3.11(A) of the Kent Education Association’s current collective bargaining agreement with the district — which doesn’t expire until August 31st — also prohibits strikes on penalty of termination:

“There shall not be authorized any strike, slow down, or any other stoppage of work by the Association, regardless of whether an unfair labor practice is alleged. Should a strike, slow down or stoppage by the Association members occur, the Association shall immediately instruct its members to return to work. If the employees do not resume work as required by the Agreement immediately upon being so instructed, they shall be subject to discipline, including discharge.”

But for KEA members concerned about possible legal penalties, it’s not as simple as returning to the classroom.

Because KEA is an affiliate of the Washington Education Association (WEA) and the National Education Association (NEA), KEA members are bound by the constitution and bylaws of both, and Article I, Section 4 of the WEA’s bylaws provides:

“Any member may be expelled or suspended from membership, censured, and/or fined for the following cause or causes: … (c) working as a strikebreaker, crossing a picket line of any WEA affiliate in the event of a work stoppage which has been approved by a majority of those members present and voting at a meeting called to decide such issues, or knowingly giving or attempting to give information to a struck employer which tends to undermine the position of the WEA and its affiliates…”

In other words, now that a strike has been called by KEA, its members must either face penalties up to dismissal for violating state law and the collective bargaining agreement or run the risk of union-imposed fines should they choose to follow the law and return to work.

The only way out of this pickle for Kent educators is to resign their union membership in KEA, WEA and the NEA, something the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Janus v. AFSCME acknowledged they have a First Amendment-protected right to do.

Teachers wishing to cancel their WEA membership can do so by completing the right form and mailing it to the union.

As an added bonus, they’ll save the more than $1,000 per year in union dues that would otherwise be deducted from their wages.

While the threat of penalties or member discontent can often pressure unions to end a strike, the state should take steps to make penalties more automatic and predictable and ensure that they fall primarily on teachers unions, since they are often more responsible for disrupting student learning and families’ schedules than the teachers themselves.

Until that happens, illegal strikes will continue to plague Washington’s K-12 schools, students, families and staff.

Director of Research and Government Affairs
As the Freedom Foundation’s Director of Research and Government Affairs, Maxford Nelsen leads the team working to advance the Freedom Foundation’s mission through strategic research, public policy advocacy, and labor relations. Max regularly testifies on labor issues before legislative bodies and his research has formed the basis of several briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court. Max’s work has been published in local newspapers around the country and in national outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, National Review, and the American Spectator. His work on labor policy issues has been featured in media outlets like the New York Times, Fox News, and PBS News Hour. He is a frequent guest on local radio stations like 770 KTTH and 570 KVI. From 2019-21, Max was a presidential appointee to the Federal Service Impasses Panel within the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which resolves contract negotiation disputes between federal agencies and labor unions. Prior to joining the Freedom Foundation in 2013, Max worked for and the Washington Policy Center and interned with the Heritage Foundation. Max holds a labor relations certificate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and graduated magna cum laude from Whitworth University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. A Washington native, he lives in Olympia with his wife and sons.