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Tacoma school strike threatens unconscionable family distress

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Aug. 30, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
August 30, 2011 5:17 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Decisions to strike are made by unions, so the responsibility for opening Tacoma’s schools on time Thursday rests squarely on the Tacoma Education Association.

Advice: Be there for the children.

This is not question of caving in on everything vs. shutting down the schools. The TEA has a third option – temporarily working without a contract, which is commonly done when public employee unions are at impasse with employers.

It’s not a good option, just the least bad. The school district and the union must figure out how to swallow the Legislature’s statewide 1.9 percent reduction in teacher salaries. Let’s remember that this reduction wasn’t the idea of the Tacoma School Board or the district’s families. The union shouldn’t punish them for decisions made in Olympia.

Operating without a contract would preserve the terms of the expired contract; there’d be no cuts in compensation, increases in class size or changes in working conditions pending agreement on a new contract. That’s not a solution, to say the least; the district can no longer afford the old terms. But it’s better than springing a sudden, massive crisis on the families and schoolchildren of Tacoma.

An 11th-hour teachers strike would inflict unconscionable pain on the countless parents who assumed that school would begin Thursday and made their day care plans accordingly. It would be met with public hostility.

Teachers have sometimes won sympathy from parents when they’ve shut down the schools in other districts. It’s hard to imagine much sympathy this year.

Striking teachers have jobs by definition, and most of those jobs pay quite well by Tacoma standards. In contrast, many other Tacomans have seen their hours or their pay cut as a result of the recession, are working for little more than the minimum wage or are completely out of work.

This isn’t an argument for paying teachers less, but the widespread economic distress is reality. A strike would shut the children of hurting Tacomans out of school for the sake of teachers who are substantially better off than they are.

There’s also the fact that teacher strikes are not like other strikes; unlike most striking workers, teachers do not put their jobs or compensation at risk.

It’s nearly impossible to replace them, and districts can’t move schools to South Carolina. Public school teachers enjoy an effective monopoly; few parents can afford the alternative of private education. Most important, state law mandates a full school year, and teachers will be paid for that year whether it begins on time or a month late.

Strikes by teachers and other public employees are illegal for a reason; they are not ordinary labor actions so much as a way of forcing concessions at the bargaining table by holding families hostage.

In this case, there is a far better alternative. The teachers can choose to be in their classrooms Thursday, with or without a contract.

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