Seattle teachers are the latest big-city union to strike amid nationwide shortages
On Thursday, Tymmony Keegan stood on a picket line outside Cleveland STEM High School in Seattle, where public school teachers had gone on strike the day before over what would have been the start of the school year.
His colleagues held signs reading, “Listen to educators! Fund our children’s dreams! A nurse in every school! It was her twins’ 4th birthday, a milestone they celebrated by temporarily joining the picket line. Cars and trucks honked their support for educators as they passed the closed school.
“All of us here on the picket line believe in what we’re doing, and we believe schools have the ability to be a much better place for students and staff,” said Keegan, an eight-year veteran. who teaches Black Studies in Cleveland.
The 6,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, clerical professionals, substitutes and other staff who make up the Seattle Education Association are part of a wave of teacher strikes that have taken place in districts large and small across the country this year, rekindling a movement of union activism in education that took place before the pandemic. Only now is a national teacher shortage giving workers in this female-dominated profession even more leverage to demand better wages, benefits and working conditions.
“One of the factors that determines the power of the union in bargaining negotiations is the demand for teachers,” said Bradley D. Marianno, assistant professor of educational policy and leadership and director of the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Evaluation at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “So if districts are having trouble attracting and retaining teachers, it allows the union that represents educators to push stronger demands in their bargaining rounds.”
The National Education Association estimates that the nation is short of 300,000 teachers. Across the country, teacher morale has plummeted amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a political climate that has led to attacks on public education, but lingering concerns over salaries and class sizes have also heightened tensions, experts and educators say.
In Seattle, educators are asking their school district for a two-year annual salary increase above the state-funded 5.5% cost-of-living adjustment. Their demands also include class size caps and workload relief for school nurses as well as better support for social-emotional learning, special education and multilingual education. Seattle Public Schools serve more than 50,000 students.
And they are not the only teachers in Washington to come out during the crisis. Teachers in the Ridgefield School District near Portland went on strike Friday. Teachers in the Kent School District, 20 miles from Seattle, ended their strike on Wednesday after walking off the job in late August. Seattle, however, stands out as the second major city union to announce a strike in recent weeks, with Columbus, Ohio, educators in August briefly going on strike for the first time in nearly 50 years. In the spring, teachers in large districts like Minneapolis and Sacramento also went on strike.
The work stoppages come as surveys of educators have found they are suffering from acute stress and burnout, making them more likely to consider leaving the profession. Before the pandemic, teachers were demanding more from districts, walking out of schools across the country during the strike movement known as #RedForEd that took place during the 2018-19 school year.
In 2022, teachers are on strike as politicians drive a wedge over the curriculum while leaving students and schools without basic resources, National Education Association president Becky Pringle said in a statement to the 19th. Every student, she said, deserves an excellent public school with high-quality educators who have the time, resources and support to inspire their students.
“I am infinitely proud that our educators act on behalf of each student to ensure they have the resources they need to succeed and a school that attracts and retains the highest quality educators with professional compensation. “, said Pringle. “The #RedForEd movement, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic and now a crisis-level national teacher shortage, has made it clear that ‘back to normal’ is not enough.”
Seattle teachers last went on strike in 2015 with demands over their salaries, ratings and working hours, among other things. Seven years later, their salaries remain a sticking point. Paraprofessionals earn a starting salary of around $19 per hour, while teachers earn a starting salary of around $63,000. For Keegan, a single parent who completed his second year of school at Seattle Public Schools in the spring, it can be difficult to balance his salary and the bills related to child care and student loans. She resides in a house in Renton, Washington, which their late mother purchased before she died of Parkinson’s disease.
“If it wasn’t for this, I don’t know how I would pay the rent considering what it costs,” they said. “So it’s been a huge financial burden taken away from me, thanks to my mum, but I have a roommate. It’s also something that helps me financially, and I’m grateful to have elders in my life that help me take care of my children.
Laurie Johnson, the registrar of Franklin High School in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood, said she couldn’t afford to live in the community where she works. “Everyone wants the chance to own their home,” she said. “Everyone should live on a living wage. And that’s all we want. I’m not asking to get rich. I’m in the wrong business if I want to get rich.
In a statement posted on its website Thursday, Seattle Public Schools said it was continuing to negotiate with the Seattle Education Association, although it had not yet reached an agreement with the union.
“We continue to negotiate in good faith and are doing everything we can to get students back into classrooms,” the statement said. “We understand the challenges students and families face when schools are closed.”
The district did not respond to the 19th’s request for comment before publication.
Marianno said the real pay of educators has stagnated. Their salaries do not reflect the current level of inflation. A new study from the Economic Policy Institute has found that teacher salaries have remained stable since 1996 and both women and men are paying a salary penalty for choosing education as a profession. Overall, teachers earn 23.5% less than comparable college graduates, according to the study.
Economist Stephanie Seguino argues that one of the reasons educators’ salaries are lower than others who require the level of teaching expertise is that women make up the majority of people in the field. Nearly 80% of the 3 million members of the National Education Association are women.
“The fact that it’s women is what’s holding back wages,” Seguino told 19 in the spring. “And it has to do with, really, what we live in is a gender caste system. Among economists, I would call this stratification, where there is a gender hierarchy, just as there is a racial hierarchy.
Teaching requires more than just pedagogical skills, but also huge social-emotional skills, Seguino said. “In any other profession, we would reward people for their special skills,” she added. “But for women, we assume it’s natural, so it doesn’t need to be rewarded. The great tragedy is that this work is of fundamental importance for the whole economy. The education of children is one of the most important investments we make in any country. So what we’re basically doing is not reimbursing the people who are essential to the productivity of a country like the United States.
Pay is just one reason Seattle educators are on strike. Johnson said she’s also worried the district isn’t allocating the necessary resources to its special education and multilingual programs. She said her husband, who was diagnosed with dyslexia, was a special education student but received the academic help needed to graduate from Franklin High and continue his college education.
“He beat the odds because of the funding and the people who supported him,” Johnson said.
Keegan wants the district to ensure schools have good student-to-staff ratios so young people get the education they deserve. By giving educators appropriate workloads and workloads, the district can help educators better serve students, she said. “Controlling our work allows us to provide these supports in a meaningful way for students,” they added.
As Seattle public schools work to end the teachers’ strike, Marianno expects more large urban school districts to come out in the near future. Los Angeles Unified School District teachers are negotiating new contracts and have already encountered difficulties in the negotiation process, he said. Los Angeles teachers last went on strike in January 2019.
Keegan said the walkouts teachers across the country are engaging in come from districts asking too much of them for little in return.
Schools “can’t keep asking us to do more and more and expect people to want to stay in the teaching profession,” she said. “We have seen people leaving in droves in recent years in particular. In my eight years of teaching as a classroom teacher, I thought to myself, “I’m really not sure this is something I can handle year after year. But I believe in what we do.