Six thousand teachers and support staff in Seattle, Washington, went on strike this morning, canceling the first day of classes for 50,000 students in the state’s largest school district. The strike followed a 95% vote of teachers, paraprofessionals and office workers to authorize the strike.
The Seattle Education Association (SEA) scrambled to reach a last-minute deal but couldn’t prevent a strike. Union officials pledged to continue talks to reach an agreement to get teachers back “into classrooms as soon as possible”. The union also dropped its initial opposition to the district’s demands for the intervention of a mediator.
Teachers are demanding big increases in salaries and benefits to keep up with inflation, reduced class sizes, more school resources and better COVID-19 protections for staff and students. Like teachers across the country, Seattle Public School teachers are working under conditions of severe understaffing, low salaries in the face of rising living expenses, a near absence of COVID safeguards -19 and the lack of mental health resources for students.
The culmination of the current proposal between the district and the union is a 5.5% wage increase, well below the current inflation rate of 8.5%. There’s also no concrete cap on class size in general, just a vague proposal from the SEA that “caps class size for non-essential secondary classes to bring parity with main classes” .
An SPS math teacher told the WSWS, “We are 90 students over budget at my school. Today alone we have seven new students, and I just spoke to a middle school teacher and they are oversubscribed as well. So we are understaffed, we don’t have the resources to support every student. And SPS makes enrollment decisions too late, like in October when it’s too late to hire someone.
“We are expecting 35 students per class,” she continued, “and that’s way too many for us to meet all of their learning needs. We have a lot of neurodivergent students; I think 45% of our students have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). We don’t have the staff we need to really support everyone who needs it.
“I started in 2018, when I came back to Seattle. I was moved in October, moved from one school to another, even though I had a special contract where I was supposed to be able to choose where I wanted to go. I had built relationships with students that had already been established. And then I had to go to a whole new school and start over, which is just not suitable for the needs of the students.
“I can’t afford to live in the neighborhood where I work. My child will not be able to go to the schools where I teach.
“When it comes to COVID safety, I think my biggest complaint was that they ended the mask mandate mid-year. I am pregnant and caught COVID from an unmasked student and this totally changes the rest of the pregnancy.
The strike vote is the latest expression of opposition from educators against increasingly intolerable conditions in classrooms, conditions that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Just last week, 2,000 educators in nearby Kent, Washington, tackled the same critical issues, including mental health counseling for students and smaller class sizes.
In Columbus, Ohio, 4,500 teachers, librarians, nurses and orderlies went on strike last month to demand higher salaries, smaller class sizes, better ventilation in school buildings and other protections against the COVID-19. The Columbus Education Association, working with a federal mediator, ended the strike after announcing a “conceptual agreement,” then pushed through a deal that ignores the strikers’ main demands.
The Seattle strike is a direct challenge to efforts by the National Education Association (NEA), the parent organization of the Seattle Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to suppress opposition among teachers. Last week, NEA Chairwoman Becky Pringle and AFT Chairperson Randi Weingarten participated in an online town hall sponsored by the Biden administration, which had the sole purpose of making it clear that schools would remain in person, regardless of the level of illness and death caused. by the coronavirus. Both union presidents praised the Biden administration’s handling of the pandemic, ignoring the loss of more than 600,000 lives since Biden took office.
The walkout is currently the largest teacher strike in the United States and has the potential to rally hundreds of thousands of educators across the country, including 35,000 in Los Angeles still working without new contracts, in a counteroffensive against the dangerous reopening of schools. , a new series of budget cuts in schools and intolerable working conditions.
To unite with teachers in Kent and across the country, and with broader sections of working people like dockers, railway workers, nurses and others, teachers in Seattle must take the lead in the struggle. This means creating rank-and-file strike committees to issue specific demands on wages, class sizes, and health and safety, and to mobilize the broad support teachers enjoy among students, parents, and the working population. from the city.
To support such a fight, educators must demand that the NEA provide full strike pay to cover lost income, sending a signal to district officials that teachers are ready for a real fight.
Sharp lessons must be learned from SEA’s sabotage of previous struggles. In 2018, SEA helped state union officials end a growing wave of teacher strikes across Washington state by agreeing to a deal and firing teachers for the first week of school before even though they had the chance to vote on it. The sellout agreement denied health care to substitute teachers, kept student-teacher, student-counsellor, and student-nurse ratios high, and kept clerical staff and para-educators on starvation wages.
SEA officials also helped city and state Democrats reopen schools last year, falsely saying it was possible to open ‘safely’ as long as ‘preventive measures’ mitigation” were in place. At the same time, social distancing and ventilation measures were dropped, as were widespread testing and contact tracing.
When Cleveland High School Principal Catherine Brown attempted to alert teachers and families to a major change to contact tracing procedures at the school, SEA said nothing when the district sought to remove her from her position.
To avoid a similar sellout, Seattle educators should join the growing national and international network of grassroots committees to launch a common fight in Seattle, Kent, Tacoma and across the state and beyond.
The Biden administration has found endless resources for its reckless proxy war against Russia in Ukraine and to prop up the stock market even as the vast majority of schools lack sufficient ventilation, and districts across the country predict severe budget deficits after one-time federal funding. out. The development of a powerful educators’ strike movement must be combined with a political struggle against the two major corporate parties and the struggle for a vast redistribution of society’s resources in order to provide quality public education for all.