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Questions Of Legality Surround Washington Teacher Strikes

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
Washington state teachers and other supporters walk away from buses as they arrive Saturday, April 25, 2015 for a Washington Education Association rally at the Capitol in Olympia.

After expressing doubts about the legality of ongoing teacher walkouts, state Republican lawmakers have scheduled a hearing on a bill that would block the state from paying a striking teacher's salary or benefits during the strikes.

Spokane Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner in a statement said teachers are making political points with children bearing the cost. "These strikes use our children as a political football," said Baumgartner, one of the bill's sponsors.   

The hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

Statewide, teacher protests for higher pay and smaller class sizes will hit a fever pitch this week with educators in Washington's largest district, Seattle, expected to walk off the job on Tuesday. The walkouts will impact more than 264,000 students in 22 districts this week alone, making this the busiest week for the "one-day strikes" since they began in late April.

Baumgartner said parents have to stay home when teachers walk out. "The union is hoping parents will take out their anger on the Legislature" he added.

"It’s a nasty game they play."

Strikes Are 'Unprotected,' But Not Quite 'Illegal'

The backlash highlights the sticky legal issues surrounding the strikes.

Many collective bargaining agreements, such as the one between Seattle's teachers unions and the school district, contain language forbidding work stoppages. And experts point out state labor laws provide no protection for striking educators — meaning districts could theoretically punish teachers who walk off the job.

"That's a little bit different than being illegal," explained Seattle University law professor Charlotte Garden, at least in the sense of there being a penalty courts can impose on teachers simply for striking.

But Garden pointed to a 2006 opinion from the state Attorney General's office saying, unlike in the private sector, there's nothing to stop a judge from barring a teacher strike — public sector employees don't have that right under Washington state law. If teachers disobeyed that order, they could face contempt citations.

Yet, as Garden pointed out, all of this would require a district to go to court to seek an injunction against a strike.

"When we're talking about a very short strike, there's often not time to get those things underway," Garden said. "As a practical matter, it may not be incredibly likely that we'll see something like an injunction."

'The Rules Are Rarely Enforced'

In a statement, Baumgartner said his bill to withhold pay and benefits from striking educators "isn't aimed at schoolteachers, but rather at the tactics their union has employed."

"Although teacher strikes are illegal under state law and local unions in most districts have signed no-strike agreements, the rules are rarely enforced. Teachers generally are paid for the days they miss, because strike days are typically tacked onto the end of the school calendar as make-up days," his statement read.

Seattle Education Association president Jonathan Knapp called the bill "political theater," since the teachers wouldn't be paid during the strike — but for the make-up school day added to the end of the school year in June.

As for the no-strike agreement in Seattle's teacher contract?

"This isn't an action against the school district," Knapp said. "This is a protest against the state legislature and their inadequate action in terms of state education funding, so we're not engaging in a strike against the district."

Seattle Public Schools superintendent Larry Nyland's letter informing parents of the strike acknowledges teachers were targeting state lawmakers, not district officials.

"The SEA action is not directed at Seattle Public School as a district," Nyland wrote, "but is a statement to the state legislature about the current lack of adequate state funding for basic education and we share that concern."

Teachers To March In Downtown Seattle Tuesday

In Seattle, teachers from all grade levels will congregate at eight district high schools Tuesday — West Seattle, Chief Sealth, Franklin, Rainier Beach, Garfield, Roosevelt, Ballard and Nathan Hale — for picketing starting at 8 a.m.

Later in the morning, the teachers will meet at Seattle Center and begin marching toward downtown on Second Avenue at 11:15 a.m. They'll rally at Westlake Park at noon before marching back to Seattle Center on Fourth Avenue at 1:30 p.m.

Teachers from Issaquah and Mercer Island, who are also walking out on Tuesday, will join the events. Knapp "conservatively" estimates more than 4,000 teachers will take part.

Reporter Ashley Gross contributed reporting to this story.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.