The “Fight for 15(%)”: Seattle educators prepare to strike for living wages & social justice

dearborn
Striking Seattle Educators, 2015

As students and teachers prepare for the start to another school year in Seattle, the contract negotiations between the union, the Seattle Education Association (SEA), and the school district are heating up—and many are now wondering if they will boil over into a strike.

In a recent article in the Seattle Weekly titled, “Is a Strike Looming at Seattle Public Schools?,” Seattle School District officials told the newspaper,

“We will work as hard as we possibly can, and be as transparent as possible, to assure that the new contract is concluded on time and provides the best compensation package we can afford and sustain. We know that any work stoppage hurts our students, our families, our community, and our staff.”

The district’s claim to be transparent around compensation packages has already been proven false. A member of the SEA bargaining committee told me that the district came in with a hard dollar amount that they said was all they had to spend on salary increases, and then after a recent major rally of SEA members at the district headquarters, that number, low and behold, increased.

But it’s the district’s second claim that, “work stoppage hurts our students, our families, our community, and our staff,” which is more important to consider. This tired talking point from the district doesn’t match anyone’s reality. It doesn’t match the reality for families, community, or staff in West Virginia when the entire state of educators went out on strike, galvanized the popular imagination, forced a Republican controlled legislature to implement a 5% raise for all public employees and taught the country the power of working people. It doesn’t match the reality of the Oklahoma teachers who, inspired by West Virginia, launched their own state-wide strike and won a statewide tax increase on the wealthy that funded educator raises of between $5,000-$6,000 from a Republican controlled legislature. It doesn’t match the reality for any of statewide educator strikes that swept red states last year and forced massive increases in education funding. It doesn’t match the experience of the Puerto Rican teachers union, the FMPR, who’s courageous strikes have garnered mass support from families and helped slow school privatization and school closures.

MakeThingsRight
Striking Seattle Educators, 2015

And it also doesn’t match the reality of our own experience here in Seattle. Seattle educators staged a weeklong strike at the start of the 2015 school year that forced the school district to implement race an equity teams in some 30 schools, eliminated standardized testing from teacher evaluations, won a guaranteed 30 minuets of recess for every kid in elementary school and more. These victories for the union were also big wins for students, families, and communities.

What we didn’t win in that contract were wage increases that could allow educators to afford to live in the city where they teach. The paltry 3%, 2%, and 4.5% wage increases we negotiated over a three year period in the last contract in no way approach the amount needed for educators to keep up with the soaring cost of living in Seattle.

This year, the Washington State Legislature was finally forced by the state supreme court—and big protests—to earmark some $2 billion specifically for educator’s salaries as part of the McCleary lawsuit for education funding. While this still isn’t anywhere near enough money for the state to meet its constitutional “paramount duty” to fully fund education, it does mean that educators across the state should be getting significant, long over due, raises. Unions in school districts around the state are waging important contract battles and winning major wage increases.

Here are some of the important victories for educators recently reported by our state union, the Washington Education Association:

Classified/ESP

  • Touchet ESP: 13.5%

Certificated

  • Skykomish: 28.7%
  • Elma: 27.2%
  • Coupeville: 22.2%
  • Sedro-Woolley: 17.7%
  • Bainbridge: 21.2%
  • Bellevue: 17.3 %
  • Shoreline: 23.5%

As the WEA writes, “These settlements prove that competitive pay raises are possible in every school district.” The question now remains, will Seattle be one of those school districts?

WEA recommends that all unions settle for nothing less than 15% wage increase and 36.7% increase for all Education Support Professionals.  With the state allocating 15% more money to the Seattle School District for salaries for the 2018-2019 year, I say it’s time to launch a new “Fight for 15(%)”–at minimum–and make that a rallying cry for Seattle educators struggling to live in gentrifying city.  In addition we have to fight for even bigger raises for ESP’s.

It should be understood that these kind of significant raises are complicated in Seattle by the fact that the legislature lowered the amount of money Seattle Public Schools could raise from local levies from 37% to 24% of its budget in the coming years. That’s exactly why the SEA should only agree to a one-year contract. Take advantage of the $2 billion in new state funding now. Then once the contract is signed, we build a campaign to pass the local school levy and immediately begin organizing to get all WEA locals to demand that the legislature lift the levy lid and finally fulfill their obligation to fully fund education.

From my years of experience watching the process of contract negotiations unfold with this school district I know that they are not committed to doing everything they can to properly compensate educators or invest in education initiatives designed to promote racial equity and social justice. To win the raises educators deserve—and the other important education initiatives the union has put forward such as restorative justice councilors, ethnic studies programs, and hiring more teachers of color—the Seattle Education Association had better be ready to fight. SEA has a general membership meeting on Tuesday, August 28th which could prove to be a pivotal event in the struggle for public education.

Dan_strike
Striking Seattle educators rally outside the school district headquarters

If the Seattle School District does not offer us the wages and education initiatives that are desperately needed in Seattle—and every indication I have seen suggests that they won’t—I will be strongly advocating to authorize a strike at the general membership meeting. The brave educators of Longview, Washington are already striking, and several other districts have already authorized a strike, and it’s time for Seattle to prepare for the same level of struggle.

As a member of the Social Equity Educators, I will be advocating for their full platform of demands–not just for teachers, but all the educators that make up our schools, including the instructional assistants, nurses, office staff, counselors, and more. We put forward our vision for a just contract at an August 22 forum at the Seattle Labor temple that featured leading educators and activist from around the country and in Seattle.  Many educators on the panel and in the audience made it clear that they are willing to strike for the pay and equity issues we have raised during the contract negotiations.

If it does come to a strike over these issues, it will take the support of parents and community organizations all joining together, to win a just contract.

Here, then, is then is the platform of SEE that we believe should be accomplished in this contract negotiation:

No concessions:

Any tentative agreement should not include any new language or additions that weaken the working and learning conditions of SEA educators and students in SPS.

Support top 3 demands of each unit:

Any tentative agreement should include the top 3 demands of each unit (SAEOP’s, Subs, Paras, ESA’s, Teachers, Center for Race & Equity, etc.) in the union, as well as meeting the following principles.

One-year contract:

Any tentative agreement should be for only one year. The $2 billion to settle the McCleary decision covers statewide educator salaries for this year. However, as the SEA’s Unity newsletter for August 20 points out, the legislature lowered the amount of money SPS could raise from local voters from 37% to 24% of its budget. It drops the per student funding from $4000 to $2500.

But, as the Unity explains, “We have a school levy to pass in February. We will need to help make sure that passes with high voter support to send a message to legislators that voters want to put more money into our schools. The legislative session will be short, so once that levy passes, we need to pressure Olympia in a huge way to lift the 24% levy lid.”

Due to this, the SEA contract should only be for one year. We should negotiate based on the $2 billion in McCleary funding now. Then, once the contract is signed, we build a campaign to pass the local levy and then take our united struggle of all WEA locals to the state legislature to demand the 24% levy lid be lifted. Agreeing to a two or three-year contract with lesser wage increases in those following years would unnecessarily set back our members’ standard of living.

Compensation:

  1. Equitable raises for ALL our members. That means the highest possible raise for all SEA members, but due to years of unequal raises, we feel the classified staff deserve a higher percentage increase. Housing costs in Seattle are skyrocketing and many staff can no longer afford to live in the communities they serve.
  2. Flexible paid time off. Educators deserve more than 2 Personal Days per year.
  3. Paid family leave for ALL educators. SEE is calling for 12 weeks of paid leave for all SEA rank-and-file members.
  4. Reasonable workloads. Support educators by offering paid time to complete necessary tasks, such as offering special education teachers more paid time to write and plan out the Individualized Education Plans.

Racial Equity:

  1. Ethnic Studies as a graduation requirement for all SPS students. All students benefit from Ethnic Studies courses.
  2. Restorative justice coordinators and practices in all schools. Restorative justice programs are sustainable when all educators are trained in restorative practices and there are paid coordinators with expertise in leading circles.
  3. Support and grow our Racial Equity Teams! SEE is calling for mandatory implicit and explicit bias training, building Professional Developments to reflect racial equity commitments using the Continuous School Improvement Plan, and for one member of the Racial Equity Team to sit on the Building Leadership Team. In addition, we support the adding of Racial Equity Teams into 10 new schools each year of the contract.

 

Paraprofessionals:

  1. An equitable raise to allow ALL paraprofessionals to continue to work with Seattle’s students and families. SEE is calling for paras to receive the full 37% pay increase for classified staff that WEA has recommended.
  2. Reasonable workloads and a safe working environment for paras. This is crucial to the physical and mental health of paras, as well as their students.
  3. Mentorship programs and concrete pathways to advance up a career ladder. SEE is calling on the district to support the professional growth and career advancement of paras in the district.
  4. Relevant and accessible professional development and technology for paraprofessionals. SEE is calling on the district to invest in the professional growth and collaboration of paraprofessionals by providing appropriate PD and tech.
  5. Hire more Instructional Assistants. This is crucial for serving students and enabling a reasonable workload.

 

Substitutes:

  1. Healthcare for Subs working halftime or more anywhere in the district. Currently subs are only offered healthcare if they’ve worked in the exact same position for at least 60 days. SEE says that if subs work at least half time anywhere in the district they deserve access to healthcare.
  2. Hands off our Professional Development! Subs are fighting to have a voice in what PDs are offered.
  3. Sick Leave parity with regular cert staff. Currently subs accrue sick leave at half the rate of regular staff, and SEE supports their call for an equitable policy.

SAEOP (Seattle Association of Educational Office Professionals):

  1. Discontinue the practice of hiring regular hourly office employees. Currently, the district is using too many hourly non-union employees to perform work that should be done by SAEOP union members.
  2. Hire more SAEOP members to match the increased workload. Currently, there are significant numbers of office support staff who are taking on increased responsibilities without increased pay.
  3. More money for professional certificates and national accreditations. It’s been at least 3 contracts since SAEOP’s received an increase in compensation for these certificates and accreditations.
  4. An equitable raise to allow SAEOP members to continue serving the SPS community. SEE supports SAEOP professionals’ call for the entire 37% pay increase for classified staff in the first year of the contract as recommended by the Washington Education Association.
  5. More and appropriate professional development offerings. Whenever possible, these offerings should include using district technology in order to limit, if not eliminate, the need to travel for these professional development opportunities.

ESA (Educational Staff Associates):

  1. Place an elementary school counselor in every school.
  2. Lower the counselor to student ratio from the current 400 to 1 to the national standard of 250 to 1.
  3. Hire more social workers for our schools.
  4. Lower the nurse to student ratio. It’s currently 1 to 1000.

 

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