The walkout by 5,000 teachers, members of the Seattle Education Association affects 53,000 students in the Seattle Public Schools. The school year was scheduled to begin September 9, but it didn’t and according to the Seattle Public Schools spokesperson the strike is costing the district $100,000 a day. David Brown, an English teacher at McLoughlin Middle School, has written on the story of disrespect for teachers in the United States, this time under the guise of “school reform.”
The Seattle Education Association is calling for a 4.75 percent wage increase in the first year and a 5 percent wage increase in the second year of a two-year contract. The union is also asking for a 4.8 percent cost-of-living raise, something that has been agreed to by the state. That is down from a 15.3 percent cost-of-living raise initially sought by the union.
Over the past five years, Seattle teachers have seen an effective 2 percent cut in wages due to inflation. At the same time, housing costs have been skyrocketing in Seattle, with the median rental price reaching $2,354 a month, amounting to about two-thirds of a starting teacher’s salary of $44,000 a year.
Teachers are also striking over issues of recess length, which is as little as 15 minutes at some schools, and the use of student test scores in punitive teacher evaluations. Negotiators between the Seattle Education Associationand the Seattle Public Schools resumed talks, with both sides reportedly giving ground on wages. The school district stated it offered an unspecified amount of money in exchange for an extra 20 minutes of daily work from teachers. For its part, the union reduced its wage demands from 10.5 percent over two years to 9.75 percent over the same period.
The issues facing teachers in Seattle are part of a broader attack on teachers across the state and nationwide. Teachers in the Kelso School District in Southwest Washington State are being offered a mere 1.7 percent raise over three years.
In district after district across the United States, teachers are facing declining real wages and the use of arbitrary, standardized test benchmarks to close schools, fire teachers, and shift students into privately run charter schools. School budgets have been devastated by years of cuts following the 2008 economic crisis where banks got trillions of dollars in bailouts and low-interest loans from the Democrats and Republicans paid for by cuts to public services like education.
Policies promoting charter schools and the scapegoating of teachers were started under the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” program and intensified under Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative. This is behind the hard line taken by school districts across the United States as they compete for ever scarcer federal dollars from Washington.
For their part, the unions are seeking to keep any strikes that do erupt limited to local and isolated actions. Shortly after the Seattle teachers walked out, the Pasco Education Association in Southeast Washington announced a tentative deal in a strike involving 1,160 teachers who had been on the picket line since September 1. The teachers had been striking over wages and curriculum issues and held a ratification vote finally.
Teachers in Pasco faced victimization by the courts, with a county judge declaring their strike illegal and fining the union $2,000 for each day the strike continued retroactive to September 8. The judge has also levied fines of $250 a day on the Pasco Education Association president and two other union officials. That same day the school district issued a statement saying teachers might not be paid or receive benefits for the month of September due to the strike. Neither the teachers in Pasco nor the striking teachers in Seattle receive strike benefits.
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union and the largest union in the nation to endorse Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, is carrying out a deliberate policy of isolating teachers and allowing the imposition of concessions district by district. The Seattle walkout takes place at a time when teachers in major school districts across the United States, from Pittsburgh to Detroit to Chicago—members of the American Federation of Teachers—are working without contracts.
While racial disparities exist, these are a product of the massive social inequality and the plans carried out by both big business parties over the last three-and-a-half decades.
Far from being a distraction, the court attack on Pasco teachers is a direct warning to striking Seattle teachers of the kind of attacks being prepared. The Seattle School Board has already threatened to take the union into court to get the walkout declared illegal.
However, the alliance of the teachers’ unions with the Democratic Party precludes any kind of mobilization of teachers against the threat to their jobs and working conditions and the destruction of public education in general. This is because the Obama administration is spearheading the attack on teachers under the guise of “school reform.”