It turned out the teachers compromised on their pay demands to take a stand on other classroom issues.
It was pretty clear this teachers strike was going to be a little different when a certain governor had sent out his seventh or eighth tweet castigating them as greedy bullies.
“Educators who refuse to educate,” he dubbed Seattle teachers in one tweet.
“Organized extortion,” he said of the Seattle teachers in another.
Except, crucially, it wasn’t our governor. The stream of testy tweets, along with a lengthy press statement decrying the Seattle strike, came not from the Washington governor, but from Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who is running for president in the Republican primaries.
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That the only forceful, official condemnation of our local teachers strike came from 2,000 miles away — and from one of the nation’s most polarizing figures in labor relations — just about says it all. It’s a major reason why the teachers just concluded their strike with relatively little fuss.
“We felt we could count on Seattle being in our corner,” says Jonathan Knapp, president of the Seattle Education Association, especially with the climate of teacher-bashing elsewhere. “We felt we were on very solid ground going into this.”
Seattle is a hotbed of labor-rights activity right now, at least in the public sector. Within days, it was clear that except for some skepticism that teachers were asking for too much money (up to 21 percent raises), many parents and essentially all community leaders were either on the teachers’ side or were staying out of it.
The teachers insisted it wasn’t solely about the pay, and in the end, they came way over to the district’s side (which has only finite resources). But even the district — the management — agreed teachers should be paid a lot more. In the end, the two sides settled at around a 14 percent total pay boost.
But the teachers were interested in a slew of other popular issues besides pay. Knapp said this was a deliberate strategy that he dubbed “bargaining for the public good.” Issues such as more recess. Less focus on standardized testing both for students and in teacher evaluations. And more equitable student discipline.
“We were using the Chicago strike (of 2012) as a model,” Knapp says.
In Chicago, the mayor had proposed closing dozens of schools. The teachers there went on strike over the usual contract issues of pay and benefits, but also made a forceful and unbeatable alliance with parents to fight the school closures.
The union here capitalized on the Seattle standardized-testing rebellion. Many local school parents (including me) have grown skeptical of too much standardized testing cutting into class time, to the point that in the past two years there has been widespread boycotting of the tests.
Knapp said the teachers union was inspired by this bottom-up movement of students, parents and teachers.
“There’s a mood shifting out there among teachers and parents about what’s going on in the schools, and who has a say over it,” Knapp said. “It has become what I call the ‘contested era of public education.’ As teachers we felt we could take a stronger stand on some of those issues, and that this was a time to do it.”
So the strike didn’t turn out to be just about pay. And thankfully, it was short.
As for Scott Walker and his tweets, it was his drive to cut teacher pay and decertify collective bargaining in Wisconsin that served as a wake-up call to teachers around the country. Not surprisingly, that has led to widespread teacher shortages in Wisconsin.
So anything he’s against, Seattleites are likely to be for. Strongly. So I got the sense when I was down at union headquarters that it’s just fine with them if Walker keeps those tweets coming.