Now that strikes orchestrated by the Washington Education Association (WEA), the union representing most public school teachers, are behind us (for now), it’s worth examining how to prevent students and families from having their school year similarly upended in the future.
While teachers are important professionals who deserve competitive compensation, state law both invites disruptive strikes while permitting overly harsh penalties for teachers who walk out. This worst-of-both-worlds approach desperately needs an overhaul.
Of the seven state statutes governing public employees of various kinds, five say strikes are illegal. The statute governing teachers is silent on strikes, however, leading WEA to claim it can strike without violating the law.
But not prohibiting strikes is not the same as permitting them. A 2006 opinion from the state attorney general concluded teacher strikes are illegal. Further, as the Seattle Times reported in 2015, judges consistently find no legal basis for teacher strikes.
The problem is that state law provides no automatic penalties for engaging in an illegal strike. Consequently, when teachers refuse to show up for work, a school district’s only recourse other than capitulation is to ask a court to order teachers back to work.
Even if a court issues an injunction, unions routinely ignore them, at which point the district must persuade the court to impose penalties for violating the injunction. The court could fine the union or individual union officers or even order jail time. Strikes usually end once penalties are threatened, which can take weeks. Until then, picketing teachers are paid like they are in the classroom.
The state has already adopted strong anti-strike provisions for other types of public employees performing important work.
After strikes in the early 1980s shut down the ferry system, stranding commuters by the thousands, state lawmakers passed a bill declaring strikes illegal, prohibiting the state from paying ferry employees for time spent striking, permitting any resident of the state to seek a court injunction if a strike is “imminently threatened” and directing the state to provide for “emergency passenger service” in the event of a strike.
Ferry employees have not gone on strike since, yet remain generously compensated.
An argument can be made for taking a similar approach with teachers. President Franklin Roosevelt famously denounced public employee strikes as “unthinkable and intolerable” since they hold critical government services hostage until union demands are met.
In Washington’s case, the state constitution designates amply providing for children’s education as the state’s “paramount duty.”
This provision has been used by WEA, through litigation, to compel the state Legislature to allocate billions of additional dollars to public education in recent years.
Failure by a taxpayer to pay property taxes, which fund public education, results in automatic penalties culminating in the government taking possession of the property.
Similarly, failure by a family to ensure their child’s school attendance results in court intervention under state truancy laws.
If all other parties involved in the provision of basic public education face automatic legal penalties for failing to do their part, why should teachers who ditch their classrooms for picket lines be treated differently? Are ferry-reliant commuters deserving of more protection from union disruptions than students?
Adopting stricter penalties is not the only option, however, and a more imaginative approach may actually prove more effective.
In Maryland, if a union calls a strike, the school district can cease recognizing, dealing with and collecting dues on behalf of the union for up to two years. Adopting such a provision would discourage future strikes by making penalties clear, firm and predictable for those responsible, while avoiding court-ordered fines or jail time for teachers who strike.
Either way, allowing illegal teacher strikes to proceed for weeks until penalties are imposed at the discretion of a judge poorly serves students, taxpayers, district administrators and teachers. Creative solutions exist, and nearly all would be an improvement over the wild west of the status quo.