Should a judge weigh in on Seattle’s teachers strike, decades of trial court rulings suggest the school district would prevail.

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If the question of whether Seattle’s teachers have the right to strike ever winds up before a judge, history strongly suggests the city’s school district will walk away from the courtroom a winner.

Officials for teacher unions in Washington don’t concede the debate, but for decades, trial-court rulings — bolstered by a formal opinion from the state Attorney General in 2006 — have consistently agreed: It’s illegal for teachers to strike in Washington.

“To my knowledge, whenever a court has ruled on public-employee strikes in Washington, it has found them to be unlawful,” said Charles Lind, a Seattle lawyer whose law firm represents school districts across the state.

Teacher strikes in state since 1972

94

Number of teacher strikes

36

Number of court actions taken

30

Number of injunctions issued

16

Number of instances teachers have defied court orders and continued striking

0

Number of known instances teachers have been fined for failing to return to work

1*

Number of known instances teachers have been jailed for defying court order.

*In 1973, three union leaders were jailed for contempt of court after failing to comply with an injunction against a strike in the Evergreen District near Vancouver

Sources: Public Employment Relations Commission; Washington Education Association; Seattle Times interviews

Lind’s perception is backed up by data from the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission.

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In the Evergreen State, where the roots of dramatic, organized labor actions run deep, public-school teachers have walked out more than 90 times since 1972. But in the 30 instances when a judge ruled on arguments over the legality of a teachers strike, the courts have always sided with school districts.

That happened when Seattle teachers went on the picket line in 1976 and again two years later. It happened in 2003 in Marysville, when a court order helped end the longest teachers strike in state history. And it happened this month in Pasco, where a judge granted an injunction on the district’s argument against a walkout.

While the Pasco strike continued as of Wednesday, an injunction typically is the beginning of the end for teachers strikes, state data show.

Once a judge schedules fines or other penalties for defiant teachers found in contempt of a court order, strikes typically are resolved. Such was the case in Kent in 2009, when, on the eve of being hit with $200 per day fines retroactive to that strike’s first day, teachers accepted a new contract.

At least 35 states have laws barring teacher strikes, according to the Center for Economic Policy and Research, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C.

But unlike some states, Washington has no defined penalties. Here, such penalties are left up to discretion of judges, who don’t routinely schedule them unless striking teachers defy an order to go back to work.

“You rarely see a teachers strike in Maryland, because the penalties there are concrete and defined by law,” said Jason Mercier of the conservative Washington Policy Center.

Because students in the state are guaranteed 180 days of school, teachers don’t lose any pay due to striking.

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Opinion

For now, district administrators say they have no plans to go to court. But they did ask the Seattle School Board for permission to do so, which the board granted Tuesday.

Regardless of the legality issue, everyone would lose if the Seattle teachers strike ends up in court, said Washington Education Association (WEA) spokesman Rich Wood.

“These kind of legal tactics never work to address the real issues,” he said. “They’re just a distraction for negotiating a settlement that meets the needs of students in the district.”

Former Attorney General Rob McKenna said Wednesday he’s sure the Seattle district would win an injunction.

“I’m certain for two reasons,” McKenna said. “Number one, state law does not grant this group of employees the right to strike, and absent an express right granted, they don’t have it. And number two, every judge that has examined this issue has agreed.”

During McKenna’s tenure as a Republican attorney general, his office issued the legal analysis that teacher strikes are illegal. Current Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, hasn’t weighed in on the issue, but McKenna’s analysis “remains the valid opinion of the office,” Peter Lavallee, a spokesman for Ferguson, said Wednesday.

Wood, of the WEA, disagrees with the AG’s analysis, noting that unlike established laws for other state public employees that explicitly prohibit strikes, a 1975 statute governing education issues remains silent on whether teachers can stage a walkout.

That “indicates the Legislature intended to grant that right to teachers,” he said.

But Lind, of the Seattle firm Patterson, Buchanan, Fobes, & Leitch, noted “common law” in Washington — including a 1958 Supreme Court ruling on a Seattle Port workers’ labor dispute — holds that public-employee strikes are unlawful.

“Washington law is clear,” he added. “For a statute to overrule the common law, it has to be explicit, not implicit.”