Seattle strike shows power of teacher-community alliance

Union members in Seattle reached a pay-hike agreement with the school district Sunday, and many teachers credit community support for the union's success.

(Joshua Trujillo/ via AP)
Supporters of striking Seattle teachers take part in a march and rally Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, in Seattle. Seattle teachers announced Tuesday that they had reached a tentative agreement with the city's school district, but said they're remaining on picket lines pending the deal's approval.

Members of the Seattle Education Association (SEA) approved a contract between the union and its school district Sunday, officially ending a weeklong strike that extended summer vacation for 53,000 students.

The contract gives teachers a 9.5 percent base salary raise over three years, as well as a state cost-of-living adjustment of 4.8 percent. As for the students, the contract guarantees a 30-minute recesses for elementary-aged students and new policies to reduce over-testing.

“We got many new things in our contract that will benefit students,” Shelly Hurley, a special education teacher in Seattle, said in a statement. 

The Seattle agreement marks a shift in strategy that could offer a template for other teacher's unions: This strike wasn't just over a pay hike, but garnered broad community support by including issues that parents and community leaders wanted addressed. 

“This is a hard-fought victory for the kids of Seattle, and I am proud of SEA members and our incredible bargaining team,” said Jonathan Knapp, SEA president. “This agreement signals a new era in bargaining in public education. We’ve negotiated a pro-student, pro-parent, pro-educator agreement.”

The teachers insisted the strike wasn’t only about their salaries. To finally reach an agreement, the teachers came down from the 21-percent pay raise they were initially requesting.

Mr. Knapp said Seattle teachers were interested in other issues besides pay, a focused strategy he called “bargaining for the public good.”

The Seattle union used the Chicago strike of 2012 as their model, says Knapp, in which teachers and parents formed “a forceful and unbeatable alliance” to fight school closures. To unite with local parents, Seattle teachers focused on a common frustration with increased standardized testing.

And Seattle wasn’t alone in welcoming in this ‘new era.’ Washington had three major teacher strikes this summer outside of Seattle, in the Pasco, Kelso, and South Whidbey school districts. Leaders of all three strikes worked to include parents, students, and the larger community in the issues. 

“It was humbling to see all of the different ways people showed us support,” Rachel Kizer, a fourth-grade teacher who participated in the South Whidbey strike, told the South Whidbey Record.

Inspired by a bottom-up movement of students, parents, and teachers, Knapp says SEA was confident that “we could count on Seattle being in our corner.” And SEA was right. There was not any official condemnation of teachers in Seattle, with all parents and community members either supporting teachers or staying out of the strike altogether. 

“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 told the Seattle Times. “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.” 

The two sides reached a tentative agreement early Tuesday, which suspended the strike until Sunday’s vote.

The tentative agreement needed a simple majority for approval from each of the three groups that the union represents: teachers, paraprofessionals, and office staff. The Seattle Times reports that more than 3,000 of the union’s 5,000 members attended the meeting – the largest turnout in the union’s history.

The meeting lasted over four hours, with members from all three groups asking questions about the contract before voting on paper ballots.

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