Teacher strikes and the law

Now that the Bellevue teachers’ strike is over, it’s time to ask and answer a simple question: are teachers’ strikes acceptable?

Now that the Bellevue teachers’ strike is over, it’s time to ask and answer a simple question: are teachers’ strikes acceptable?

Put aside the pros and cons of the issues in the Bellevue strike (though I am happy that Bellevue teachers are getting a raise). Let’s stay focused on tactics. I don’t think teachers’ strikes are acceptable because teachers’ strikes are illegal.

For some bizarre reason there are people who regard that as a controversial position. I don’t know why because it’s not even a close call. Attorney General Rob McKenna, a supporter of the Bellevue public schools and a former president of the Bellevue Schools Foundation has patiently, thoroughly explained this numerous times to legislators and members of the news media, including me.

The Washington Education Association, the teachers’ union, acknowledges that while strikes by public employees are illegal, the law doesn’t specify that “public employees” includes public school teachers. If a first year law student made that argument in class he’d be laughed at. It’s like saying that it’s illegal for vehicles to drive 90 mph in a 55 zone but it doesn’t apply to you because it doesn’t specify your car.

But laws against speeding carry penalties. Laws against public employee strikes do not. That’s the real problem. The law is toothless.

You can add teeth by going to court and getting a judge to issue an injunction ordering the teachers back to work. If they defy it, the judge can hit the union hard with fines. That is why teachers’ unions rarely ignore an injunction. It links the strike to financial consequences.

But no one in Bellevue went to court. The school board waited more than a week before holding a meeting to see if they should even seek an injunction. When they did, the union, being well organized, made sure that most people there opposed the injunction. The school board opted not to, saying that it would be divisive and raise tensions.

And this is where I start scratching my head. An injunction is divisive? Wasn’t the strike itself divisive?

From now on, when the union strikes in Bellevue or anywhere else, from Kirkland to Kent, the school board should be in court within an hour seeking an injunction. Yes, the union will threaten to retaliate when school board elections are held, but the voters will respect strong leaders who face down pressure and uphold the rule of law over those who think the law is theirs to ignore at will.

If strikes by public employees weren’t illegal, that would be an entirely different matter. But they are and school boards have an obligation not only to follow the law but also to see to it that students and teachers do the same. Thousands of parents had their schedules turned upside down for two weeks for no good reason. It shouldn’t happen again.