Teacher strikes hit low-income families the most

We’ve spent some virtual ink on SGW pointing out that teacher strikes are not legal under Washington state law (nor are any public employee strikes). In the lead-up to strike votes, union leaders try to soft-pedal this fact to their members. One union official in Pasco, reacting to a column here on SGW, even had the gall to say, “The debate about legality or illegality of striking is the wrong issue.”

That’s another way of saying, “Let’s change the subject.” Don’t even bother talking about it, it’s the wrong issue!

The only hiccup with the illegality of teacher strikes is that specific penalties for striking public employees are not spelled out in state law (as they are in many other states). That does not mean there aren’t any potential consequences for striking teachers – judges in the past have ordered teachers back to work, levied fines, and even jailed union leadership. The process is slow, however. First the district must seek an injunction, and then show the union is ignoring it. After that, penalties are possible.

In Pasco, where teachers are currently striking, the school district is seeking an injunction to get teachers back to work. Former state Supreme Court justice Jim Johnson expects a preliminary injunction to be “easily granted by the judge.” Penalties for defying court orders could follow.

Who suffers?
Teacher strikes are more than just illegal, they’re a bad idea that hurts kids – and there’s no doubt that low-income families who rely on the schools suffer the most.

We should look past that, union leaders say. Teacher strikes “are just like snow days”, they say. They’re little anomalies in the schedule that can be made up for later in the year.

Beyond the fact that it’s unfortunate to hear instructional days dealt with so casually, that approach ignores the hardships caused by school closures. Unexpected interruptions in the school year are a difficulty for all families, but higher-income families can deal with those problems easier.

Working class parents are more likely to have rigid work schedules, and time off means a lower paycheck. Children from these families often rely on school meal programs, and the scramble for short-notice childcare is more difficult for those families and more impactful on their monthly budget.

But we’re just supposed to ignore all that. Any action taken by the union is for the kids, the union tells us. We’re supposed to just accept that.

I don’t. For families thrust into this situation, the legalities and the politics of teacher strikes aren’t the point. For them, the strikes are a burden – an optional burden, imposed on them by others.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.