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Taxpayer-Funded UW Panel Celebrates Illegal Teacher Strikes

Earlier this week, the state-funded Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington (UW) co-sponsored a panel celebrating two recent strikes by public schools teachers in Seattle and Pasco.

UW political science professor George Lovell moderated the panel, which featured two representatives of the Seattle Education Association (SEA) and three from the Pasco Association of Educators (PAE). Both SEA and PAE are local union affiliates of the statewide teachers union, the Washington Education Association.

The following was how the event was described on the Bridges Center’s event page:

In September at the beginning of the school year teachers in both Seattle and Pasco, WA won two big strikes. Despite court injunctions and negative press, both strikes were successful. Their wins were not just wins for teachers, or workers, or unions, but for public education in Washington state. Seattle and Pasco teachers have shown they are on the front lines fighting against market based reforms in our school. (sic) Come to this panel discussion to hear the voices of Pasco and Seattle teachers as they reflect on the strike and look to the future.

There’s just one problem: Strikes by teachers — or any public employees in Washington — are illegal under state law.

In addition to operating at a public university, the current state operating budget directly allocates $200,000 of taxpayer funds per year to the Harry Bridges Center, which houses the Labor Archives of Washington.  

Effectively, the state legislature is using taxpayer dollars to subsidize activity undermining the very laws it has enacted. 

While the event was objectionable on its face, an audio recording of the panel obtained by the Freedom Foundation captured a number of informative comments from the panelists, ranging from simply inaccurate to outrageous and conspiratorial.

The full recording of the event is available here. Highlights are transcribed below (errors in original) with author’s commentary.

1. George Lovell, UW political science professor, on celebrating teacher strikes:

Why celebrate teacher strikes? I think the first thing to note about that is that successful strikes have become about as rare as hen’s teeth in our society. And strikes as a whole are almost disappearing… So the singularity of this strike is reason enough to celebrate, pay attention and also to try hard to understand what worked about the Pasco strike and the Seattle strikes.

According to Lovell’s worldview, strikes are an end unto themselves, regardless of their legality or effects on students and families.

2. Sarah Arvey, SEA, on management supporting the strike:

We also had students and families coming to our (picket) line — which was one of the most important things about being on the line in front of our school — so we could be visible to our administration and say, ‘Yeah, we’re here and we’re going to be staying here until we get what we deserve.’ And at Hamilton (Middle School), at least, we also had a really supportive administration, so at one point they even brought us, like, coffee and donuts.

This gets to the heart of one of the structural problems with public-sector collective bargaining. While, in the private-sector, employers face a profit motive that can sometimes pit them against employees, there is no such motive in government. While some government employees undoubtedly deal with difficult management, there are few structural reasons for public managers to treat employees poorly. 

Suffice it to say, if management brings you coffee and donuts when you’re on strike, you probably don’t need to be there in the first place.

3. Sarah Arvey, SEA, on the elimination of student growth ratings:

I’d say, like, our most significant gains just as far as the contract went, were, we got no – we don’t have student growth ratings anymore. So that takes pressure off standardized testing… I see what’s happening with standardized testing as also the use of low-income schools and schools and communities of color as almost like experiments, like, ‘Ok, we’ve got to measure you every, like, two months to see how much progress you’re making and then we have to, like, align and experiment with your whole educational experience based on that.’ So getting rid of student growth ratings was really critical.

Like any government union, the primary function of the SEA is to increase wages and benefits for its members while decreasing teachers’ workloads and accountability. In this case, it means the SEA opposes any effort—no matter how minimal — to compensate teachers based on their performance. Teachers’ unions may pay lip service to putting students first, but when the union’s goals conflict with valid concerns about educational quality, there is little doubt about which the union will prioritize. More information about Seattle Public Schools’ student growth rating system is available here.

4. Sarah Arvey, SEA, on leading by example:

I see the most significant gain as the message that we’re sending to students. My number one most important, kind of, moment or thoughts around the strike are: We’re leading by example. So we’re showing students that, you know, we—at school, they deserve a certain type of education and we deserve certain, you know, as teachers, we have certain workers’ rights that need to be, um, what’s the word I’m looking for? I don’t know. Don’t worry, I’m a language arts teacher. It’s totally my thing. But, you know, we deserve to have our rights and students deserve to have their rights…

Arvey has it exactly backwards. Teachers have no legally protected right to hold public education hostage by going on strike. Students’ right to receive an adequate public education is, however, protected by the state constitution. Breaking duly enacted laws for your own personal gain is hardly sends an edifying message to the next generation.

5. Dan Troccoli, SEA, on merit pay for teachers:

About a decade ago you saw the initiation of merit pay at its height. Merit pay — where teachers get paid more because their schools test better — which of course is a bunch of bull**** because kids test better for all different reasons. It has nothing to do, necessarily, with intelligence or how well they’re doing.

6. Dan Troccoli, SEA, on making the union more militant:

(Referring to a caucus within SEA he helped start called Social Quality Educators):

A main part of our mission as a group was to, one, push the union to be more militant around defending public schools against corporate public education reform and, two, to make it more progressive around social issues. So, you know, opposing the wars, supporting gay rights, today that would be supporting Black Lives Matter. Things like that.

7. Dan Troccoli, SEA, on charter schools:

The attacks on teachers reached a fever pitch, I think, about three or four years ago… Since that time, we’ve seen a tremendous pushback. And sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. But here in Washington alone, including the strike, we’ve also seen a constitutional overturning of charter schools… And I think that is indicative of the kind of pushback that’s going on. Total overturning of our school board. We kicked all the bums out recently. That happened in a number of districts around the country. St. Paul, Portland, Philadelphia, where there is, like, a horrible charter school, like, just an epidemic there. And of course, like, what happened in New Orleans with the charter schools there. Like, they have been shown to be absolutely horrible for New Orleans public school students. And that’s where they have 100 percent charter schools.

8. Dan Troccoli, SEA, on future strikes and corporate conspiracies:

This strike will not be the last one. Right now, Chicago, which had their strike — they’re poised to go on strike again. And this one will not be pretty. It will be tough. And that’s because these guys (so-called “corporate education reformers”?) are not like — it’s not like, ‘Oh, we tried to take—pick your pocket. We’re done now,’ or, ‘You caught us.’ They are trying to compete with the likes of other countries like China, where they pay their workers $2 a day. They’re not going to give that fight up. It’s about lowering the standard of living, and part of the way to do that is to make people through the public education system think, ‘You deserve a lower standard of living because you failed every test that you took for every single year you were in school. And your teacher is lousy educating you anyway. You all need a lower standard of living.'”

This is the height of conspiratorial paranoia. America’s corporate overlords push for standardized testing so that students will inevitably fail and be brainwashed into accepting lower wages? SEA must be passing around some pretty strong Kool-Aid.

But it gets better. Later in the evening, Troccoli continued:

Just ask yourself, ‘Why is this happening?’ Like the reason that people are leaving and have been for decades now. Like the statistic Sarah mentioned before — 50 percent of teachers leave in four to five years, like, leave the profession entirely. Not just move to a different school — say, ‘I’m out.’ Why do they do that? It’s because the job is untenable. And here’s a thought. The people who are pushing these kinds of reforms want that. Because they want a workforce that’s — what do you call it? — Like, it’s precarious. Someone said precarious. So that, like, you can control them. And if you can control the teachers, who are clearly starting to mount a fightback, you have a better chance of controlling the students and when they become workers later on. And that’s a real thought that you — we have to wrap our heads around. That they actually want this. They want to destabilize public schools.

9. Greg Olson, president of the PAE, on union democracy:

Now, the thing  you’ve got to understand about our union is, in previous years when we had votes on anything — elections, ratifications, any kind of election that we had or any kind of vote that we had — out of our 800 to 1,000 people, we would have 100-200 people vote. So we really did not have a lot of people that wanted to be part of that.

Participation in the strike vote and subsequent contract ratification vote was much higher, but it doesn’t sound like many teachers are that interested in regularly participating in union affairs.

10. Greg Olson, president of the PAE, on the court injunction:

We went out for nine days. Very tough nine days. And we had a court injunction right off the bat, the very first day. We ended up getting fined $5,600, which was a lot of money. And this is the first time, I believe… Most times when you get these fines, the court gives it back to you when they’re done. Once you settle and you get everything done they say, ‘OK we’ll just forget it and go.’ This judge, for some reason, did not do that. So we ended up paying $5,600. We did not get it back. But I think it was a good $5,600 for us. What was nice was that it was a union bill, it wasn’t a individual bill. They did set it up where individuals were getting fined. The exec board, our bargaining team and me as president were all on that. But we kept doing it. We just said, ‘You know what? It’s worth doing.’ We did get some people in the back that were saying, ‘You know what? It’s a little hard. If I’m going to be on there and I’m going to get fined, I don’t know that I want to keep doing this.’ But we had people saying, ‘You know, its OK, let it go and we’ll see what happens.’ And normally what happens is they let it—they take them off. This judge was, for some reason, very different.

Although teacher strikes are illegal under state law, no penalties are specified for breaking the law. Consequently, public employers must seek court injunctions ordering the teachers back to work. Unions frequently ignore these injunctions and continue to strike, which leads to court to begin fining the union. Courts have fined unions for ignoring anti-strike injunctions numerous times. If, as Olson claims, these fines are rarely paid, it is truly outrageous and further emphasizes the need for the Legislature to put teeth into the state’s public-employee strike prohibitions.

11. Debbie Hodge, PAE, on bargaining priorities:

We (the bargaining team) knew what people wanted. And we decided we were going to go for the greater good this time; for the issues — primarily — that would benefit everyone. 

Makes one wonder what the union typically prioritizes.

12. Greg Olson, president of PAE, on being thankful for the support of other WEA locals during the strike:

I know next year we’re going to have a lot of people that are probably going to be in the same boat, and we will definitely return the favor back.

More strikes on the horizon?

13. Sarah Arvey, SEA, on the state’s paramount duty:

It (striking) sends a really strong message to the Legislature… that we’re going to fight for our schools and, the, you know, these kids, their paramount duty—we’re going to hold you to that.

Taxpayers who refuse to pay taxes to support the state’s paramount duty to adequately fund basic education will get shipped off to jail, as will parents who fail to send their children to school. The Legislature is being fined daily because the Supreme Court thinks it hasn’t done enough to fund education. But when teachers unions call a strike and withhold education from students, they face no consequences. Why doesn’t the paramount duty apply to unions?

14. Dan Troccoli, SEA, on whether the district could afford pay raises for teachers:

First of all, we know that they have money. The fact that they—when they say they don’t have money its bull****, OK? They have money at all levels; at the state, at the local, too. They’re hiding it in all sorts of places. They have reserves that are over 10 percent more than what they need. I mean, like, in the tens of millions of dollars. They have money. It’s a lie when they say they don’t.

15. Dan Troccoli, SEA, on the union selling out its members:

We have the history in our union of sometimes selling out one group for the benefit of the rest. And it happened to second-language interpreters, like, in our last contract, and so there were a number of people who felt that.

16. Dan Troccoli, SEA, on whether the contract was a success:

Overall, the contract was a massive win. Oh my God. It was just like, we spanked them. We spanked the hell out of the district. I mean, they came at us trying to get our grievance procedure to go from 60 days, which is typical, to like 20 days. That was like, gone. We didn’t even spend a day batting that away. And there was a number of proposals that they put forward that were like that that we were just like, ‘See ya.’ You know what I mean? And we also won some important things. There’s just no question it was a win.

17. Greg Olson, PAE, on Pasco’s Latino community:

Our Latino community is very quiet. And it was one of our biggest pushes to try to get them involved, to make sure that they stepped up. And they did. We worked it out. We actually had someone from NEA come in, our national organization, and he helped organize that part of it to get our Latino community to be more vocal. And they’re still not very vocal. They’re still very quiet… I think it’s just that culture thing where they think that teachers know what they’re doing, we’re going to let our kids go, because they know what they’re doing. But we’re working on that, trying to get them to be — you know, you can question what’s going on… I still think we have a lot of work to do on the east side to get those parents to start standing up. Because they do. They have that knowledge they’re just afraid to stand up and talk… A lot of our parents are coming straight from Mexico and they don’t understand the language. They don’t—they listen to whatever is being told. That’s the way it should be.

Even after listening to it multiple times, it’s still unclear whether Olson thinks that Pasco’s Latino parents did or did not speak out enough during the strike. Also, hopefully he didn’t mean his last statement.

18. Dan Troccoli, SEA, on the supply of teachers in Seattle:

Seattle Public Schools no longer has a contract with Teach for America, which is great. Because their whole argument is that we need to expand the pool. Really? Expand the pool? We have hundreds of people looking for jobs, looking for teaching jobs in Seattle. We don’t need to expand the pool. We need to hire people is what we need to do. That being said, there are other places where there is a shortage, there’s no doubt about that.

If there are so many people seeking teaching jobs in Seattle, perhaps the wage levels are not so bad after all.

19. Sarah Arvey, SEA, on investing in teachers: 

We’re not seeing a high investment in students. When you’re not investing in teachers, you’re not investing in schools, inevitably you’re not investing in students, which is our number one priority always.

In other words, if students are the number one priority, then the teachers union should always get what it wants. Sounds about right.

Remember: These are your tax dollars at work.