Seattle cancels first day of school as teachers go on strike

The Seattle teachers strike is just the latest in a wave of strikes in school districts across the United States.

A supporter walks the picket line as teachers strike outside Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, Washington
The coronavirus pandemic put extraordinary pressure on teachers throughout the United States and now they are demanding better pay and working conditions [File: Matt Mills McKnight/Reuters]

Classes in Seattle, Washington have been cancelled on what would have been the first day of school this fall for tens of thousands of students because teachers are striking over pay, mental health support, and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.

Jennifer Matter, president of the Seattle Education Association, a labour union representing more than 6,000 teachers, paraprofessionals and office workers, said that 95 percent of its members who submitted a ballot voted to go on strike on Wednesday. Contract talks continued.

“No one wants to strike,” Matter said. “But SPS [Seattle Public Schools] has given us no choice. We can’t go back to the way things have been.”

Seattle’s school district said in an email to parents that it was “optimistic the bargaining teams will come to a positive solution for students, staff, and families”.

Seattle’s is the latest in a wave of teacher strikes across the United States that have resumed after many schools were suspended during the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic put extraordinary pressure on teachers and students alike. Federal stimulus money helped stabilise school district budgets. Teachers’ unions have tried to seize the opportunity to voice their concerns and get better pay and more resources for students and teachers after a difficult few years.

union members carry signs that say on strike outside a high school in Colombus, Ohio
A union member proudly pickets with her homemade sign as part of a district-wide teacher’s strike outside Whetstone High School in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, August 24, 2022 [File: Samantha Hendrickson/AP Photo]

High inflation, a national teacher shortage and the goodwill teachers earned from their pandemic-schooling efforts are all bolstering union efforts, said Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“By all measures, school budgets actually look pretty good right now,” Marianno said. “So as teachers union contracts are expiring, they’re looking for new deals that essentially send more funding to teachers and more funding to students.”

The Seattle teachers union in a Twitter post late Tuesday night wrote: “The district needs to meet student needs NOW! Our bargaining team is still at the table and we are still working toward an agreement.”

The strike means the cancellation of the first day of school for 47,000 Seattle students in the district, the largest public school system in the state. Teachers are expected to march in picket lines at many of the system’s 110 schools on Wednesday.

The school district said it would serve meals for students at several schools and after-school activities will continue during the work stoppage.

The Seattle strike followed a four-day work stoppage by teachers in Columbus, Ohio, two weeks ago over class sizes and guaranteed air conditioning in classrooms.

Teachers in Columbus — Ohio’s largest school district — last week ended the strike, agreeing on a package that included 4 percent raises, includes plans for building improvements, reduced class sizes and innovative paid leave benefits.

In Denver, Colorado, marathon bargaining sessions last week resulted in a tentative agreement for an 8.7 percent raise for educators, a higher salary for first-year teachers, and more money from the district for health insurance costs.

Teachers in Minneapolis, Chicago and Sacramento also walked out earlier this year before securing new contracts.

What teachers in Seattle are asking for

The union in Seattle said it is opposing the school district’s efforts to eliminate staffing ratios for special education students, arguing that the bulk of the work will fall to general education teachers and special education teachers alike.

The union also said the district’s proposals would make general education teachers more responsible for supporting multilingual students.

In a video released by the union, speech-language pathologist Julie Salazar said she voted to authorise the strike because caseloads for her and other special education staff are too high.

“We can’t serve our kids well and everybody knows it,” she said.

Meanwhile, Seattle’s school district has offered pay raises of an additional 1 percent above the 5.5 percent cost-of-living increase set by state lawmakers — far less than the union said it wanted — plus one-time bonuses for certain teachers, including $2,000 for third-year Seattle teachers earning an English language or dual-language endorsement.

Source: News Agencies