Tacoma teacher strike leaves 28K kids at home

Directly following a vote to strike, Robert Kroker, right, a math teacher at Stewart Middle School, and Monte Gibbs, a teacher at First Creek Middle School, construct picketing signs at Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma, Wash., Sept. 12, 2011.
AP Photo/The News Tribune

TACOMA, Wash. - Teachers in the Washington city of Tacoma voted overwhelmingly Monday evening in favor of a strike.

That means after only seven days of school, the 28,000 children in Washington state's third-largest school district will be staying home Tuesday. Tacoma Education Association spokesman Rich Wood said 87 percent of the union's total membership voted to walk out.

Tacoma School District spokesman Dan Voelpel said the district will seek an immediate court injunction Tuesday to terminate the strike, which school officials contend is illegal. Superintendent Art Jarvis will revisit the decision to keep school closed in light of whatever happens in court, Voelpel said.

Voelpel told CBS News affiliate KIRO-TV of Seattle that teachers are refusing to bargain or budge from their demands.

"No one wins in a strike," he told KIRO-TV. "It would be very difficult for our staff and for everyone involved. We would really prefer to hammer these issues out at the bargaining table."

Several teachers told KIRO-TV that walking off the job is necessary to get their point across to the district.

Both the Washington attorney general and state judges have ruled that state public employees do not have the right to strike.

Teachers have been working without a contract since Sept. 1. The teachers union negotiated with the school district over the weekend but the two sides failed to agree on a contract proposal.

A strike vote at the end of August failed to pass by about 28 votes. Union bylaws require approval by 80 percent of the nearly 1,900 members to authorize a strike.

Issues in dispute include teacher pay, class size and seniority.

Since the last strike vote was so close, the union decided to allow members with schedule conflicts to vote early. About 200 union members with after-school responsibilities like coaching voted Friday or Saturday, Wood said. This time, 1,623 of the union's 1,869 members voted to walk out, he said.

A 2006 state attorney general's opinion said that state and local public employees — including teachers — do not have a legally protected right to strike. That opinion also noted that state law does not contain specific penalties for striking public employees.

During several past teacher strikes, Washington school districts have gone to court and judges have issued orders ordering teachers back to work.

In Washington, only the Seattle and Spokane school districts are larger than Tacoma.

Tacoma teachers earned an average salary of $63,793 during last school year, according to the district. They are the best-paid teachers in Pierce County and about the fifth-highest paid among the state's largest districts, behind teachers in Everett, Northshore, Seattle and Bellevue, according to state data.

The Legislature included in its state budget a 1.9 percent cut in teacher pay but left it up to school districts to figure out how to save that money. Some districts have made cuts elsewhere, some have cut teacher pay, and others have worked out compromises with their local teachers union.

The News Tribune reports that on the issue of pay, the district said Sunday it has offered teachers two options.

They could maintain the current pay schedule and sacrifice pay for one personal day, one individual optional training day and one school-wide training day. Or they could accept an effective 1.35 percent cut in the salary schedule. In exchange, teachers would be allowed to schedule 2.5 furlough days.

The district said it has also offered to keep class size maximums at the current level. The union wants to decrease class sizes, but the district says subtracting one child per class could cost the district about $1.8 million a year.