Striking teachers overworked, underpaid

Frustration is growing in the Bethel (WA) School District as teachers on strike hold their ground for the fourth day in a row.

Some students hoped to return to school after the long holiday weekend, bit the district has already canceled classes for Tuesday.

Behind closed doors in Tacoma, teachers and district leaders have been continuing talks that could send them back to school.

"Both teams have been there all weekend and may be here tomorrow, so there's a real effort to get this resolved," said Tom Cruver with the Bethel Education Association.

The dispute is over money, health benefits and class size. Teachers claim they're underpaid and overworked, and the district claims it's listening to the teachers' demands.

"We're making progress. We still have a long way to go, but we're hopeful," said district spokesman Mark Wenzel.

Teachers traded in their classrooms for the picket lines last Thursday, which was supposed to be the first day of class.

Cruver said teachers made the decision after six months of failed contract negotiations.

"There's always been a sense of urgency, even in February," he said.

But the urgency for parents is growing every day. Albert Boring's daughter has already missed two days of school.

"She seems to enjoy the fact that she's not going to school right now," he said.

But she may not be so happy when the district reschedules the days lost to the strike later this year.

"The makeup days could be Saturdays, they could be this summer, a shortened holiday. We'll look at all the options," Wenzel said.

Both sides plan to meet on Monday. If they agree on a contract, they'll need to open it up for a review for the following 24 hours, during which time the start of the school year will continue to be delayed.


State permits illegal teacher strike

The state Attorney General's Office says it's illegal for public employees to strike, but that doesn't mean the state will do anything about the teachers who are striking in the Bethel School District.

Attorney General Rob McKenna drafted an opinion on the issue last year that says state employees don't have the constitutionally protected right to strike unless it's expressly granted to them by the Legislature.

In Washington, it's not. But the Legislature doesn't establish penalties for public employees who go on strike, either.

The state's opinion is based on a 1958 case between the Port of Seattle and the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union that references government's "general immunity" from a strike.

Worker versus taxpayer

The idea is that taxpayers' constitutional right to use government services outweighs the right of public employees to picket, said David Stolier, an attorney in McKenna's office who specializes in education issues.

Stolier said the question of whether it's legal for teachers to strike comes up with every dispute between unions and school districts.

Even though the state says teacher strikes are illegal, a strike would have to last a long time or be particularly disruptive for the state to consider getting involved, he said.

"There's not a lot we can do in the early part of a strike like this," he said this week of the situation in Bethel. "It's really an employer-employee dispute at this point."

One way the state would consider taking action is if the strike lasted so long that it made it impossible for students to have a full-length school year, Stolier said.

"Theoretically, if it got to the point that students' right to have an education became threatened, our office might get involved," he said.

That's never happened, he said. And normally the employer would be the one to pursue illegal action before the Attorney General's Office would.

No legal action yet

Bethel School District spokesman Mark Wenzel said the district isn't considering legal action against the Bethel Education Association at this point.

"We're really focused on trying to get back to the bargaining table," Wenzel said. "That's all we're focused on right now."

Washington Education Association spokeswoman Eddie Westerman said teachers unions have a different take on the legality of public employee strikes.

Westerman said state statutes on strikes are silent and that no case specifically addresses the issue.

"The law allows collective bargaining between teachers and their districts, but neither allows nor prohibits strikes," Westerman said.

"Each case must be decided on its own merits."

Bills have been introduced in past legislative sessions to make teacher strikes illegal, but they have all died.

Stolier said the law regarding teacher strikes would be clearer had an appellate court ever ruled on such a case.

King County and Snohomish Superior courts have ruled against teachers unions, but those decisions didn't set a precedent since they were in lower courts.

Bethel School District classes did not begin as scheduled Wednesday as teachers went on strike over disagreements on workload, class size and pay.


Striking union wears down district over holiday

The holiday weekend got a little longer for thousands of Pierce County students. Striking teachers have not reached an agreement with the Bethel School District. The district sent a telephone message to parents on Sunday, informing them that schools will remain closed on Tuesday. Representatives of the school district and the teacher's union continue to meet behind closed doors.

"It's Labor Day weekend. It's fitting to talk about these sorts of things," said union president, Tom Cruver.

They report progress on the issues of extra pay, class sizes, work load and benefits, but picketing could begin again Tuesday if an agreement is not reached by then.

The district will notify parents Monday if school will start on Wednesday.

Parents can call 253-683-6001 for a recorded message, or visit the district's Web site for updates.

The Bethel School Disctrict employs more than 1,000 teachers. There are nearly 18,000 students in Spanaway, Graham, Roy, Kapowsin and Frederickson.

The teachers called for a strike last Tuesday night after seven months of bargaining fell apart.

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