A history of the unity, commitment and sacrifice that won collective bargaining rights for public school employees in Washington
Though the Washington Education Association marked its 100th anniversary in 1989, it was major events and changes of the most-recent few decades that truly molded the WEA into the strong union and professional association it is today.
The story of the last few decades is a story of ordinary members who believed strongly in public education and providing the best possible education for their students, and who believed that the status of educational employees and the conditions under which they worked had to be improved.
Their story is one of tremendous commitment to a cause, and a willingness to make the personal sacrifices necessary to make the cause succeed. It is also a story of how member unity and action have achieved major gains.
The days before collective bargaining
Before 1965 no school employees in Washington had the benefits of a collective bargaining contract. A few specific rights for teachers were outlined in state law. Individual contracts contained only an annual salary figure, the length of contract in days and teaching assignments. If teachers coached or held some other extra duty assignment, that assignment and salary were spelled out in their contract or a supplementary contract.
In some school districts, board policies granted teachers additional privileges, but board policy was always subject to change. It never conferred a right.
School board and administrator paternalism was the order of the day in the early 1960s. One WEA member, at the time, summed up his rights: "The school district owns us 24 hours a day. I have no rights to a private life. I'm called a professional when it suits their purpose, but when we ask for professional salaries and professional working conditions, their answer is always, No!" Another member recalls being required to quit her job when her pregnancy began to "show." And many other teachers remember countless tales of similar unfair and arbitrary treatment.
The birth of contract negotiations
Teachers did not set out to obtain collective bargaining, but that was the result of events and changes in public education which took place in the 1960s.
What teachers sought then was a voice a say in their profession, their salaries, their rights and their teaching. Their working conditions were their students' learning conditions, and the desire for dignity, respect and a voice was closely tied to their desire to do a good job in the classroom.
Their idealism and their growing assertiveness were a part of other changes taking place in society in the 1960s. No longer were teachers willing to remain subservient and passive. As local associations became more active, superintendents and school boards stiffened their resistance to change.
In places like Seattle, the local association attempted a form of bargaining with school boards only to be turned away. These locals wanted the WEA, still dominated by administrators as late as 1964, to seek a negotiations law.
The result was passage of the 1965 Professional Negotiations Act. This one-page law for K-12 and community college teachers obligated school boards to "meet, confer and negotiate ..." with an employee organization, chosen in an election, to "communicate the considered professional judgment ... prior to final adoption by the board of proposed school policies relating to, but not limited to, curriculum, textbook selection, inservice training, student teaching programs, personnel, hiring and assignment practices, leaves of absence, salaries and salary schedules and non-instructional duties."
In late 1965 a flurry of activity began. Elections were held and locals put together their first packages of education policy changes to present to school boards. Teachers felt they had won the battle to have a real voice.
'Negotiations' prompt need for real bargaining
Similar changes in school board/employee relations were taking place in other states across the country. In some places, notably New York City in 1962, strikes began to take place. Here in Washington, teachers felt they could have a voice and avoid such conflict. They called the process "professional negotiations," not "collective bargaining."
Calling it professional negotiations apparently did not impress very many school boards. Right from the beginning, school boards resisted this new voice for teachers. They viewed it as an infringement on their authority as elected officials.
In the first year, the Northshore Education Association had to declare impasse and ask the State Superintendent's office to send in an advisory committee of educators and board members to help settle the dispute.
Was this professional negotiations law really collective bargaining? At first teachers preferred to think it wasn't. They rejected the union label for themselves. The law did use the word "negotiate," which most "meet and confer acts" in other states did not. It did not, however, require written contracts as the final product of bargaining. It had no unfair labor practices defined, no formal mediation procedures, and it contained few of the other standard features of a bargaining law. The bargaining units also had to include administrators, which caused a growing conflict of interest for them.
Resistance grows so does determination
By the late 1960s more and more teacher concerns were being brought to bargaining tables across the state. School boards continued to resist. The Washington State School Directors Association rallied against this "growing intrusion into school board decision-making authority."
But teachers continued to make bargaining progress. The first real collective bargaining contract negotiated under the old Professional Negotiations Act was won in Tacoma in 1968. The Seattle Teachers Association followed in 1969.
Incredible hours put in by members willing to confront established school board attitudes began to pay off. By now, however, the process was beginning to look and act more like real collective bargaining.
The number of impasses increased. At the same time, other disputes went to court. In 1971, for instance, the 1,200-member Edmonds Education Association had to go to Superior Court to have the school calendar declared a negotiable item.
By the early 1970s the number of comprehensive contracts began to increase, but as they increased, boards in other districts drew a line in the dust and declared they would never sign contracts with teachers.
The irony of this stand was even more obvious because in 1967 the Legislature had passed a genuine collective bargaining law for classified school employees the support staff who worked with teachers and other certificated staff in the schools. This law prescribed contracts over "wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment." Thus, districts were signing contracts with some school employee groups, but some persisted in not signing with teacher associations.
WEA and NEA continue push for bargaining
Teachers, at this time, began to debate within the WEA whether or not to seek a true collective bargaining law. Many argued they would give up a wide scope of issues. Others, however, said it was futile to negotiate if it never resulted in a guarantee or contract which could not be changed at the whim of the school board.
The movement toward widespread bargaining was accelerated by the NEA's new field staff program adopted in 1970. The UniServ program, as it was called, put a trained staff person in the field for each grouping of locals comprising 1,200 members. UniServ staff worked for the associations, not the district, and they couldn't be intimidated at the bargaining table. They aggressively organized to expand bargaining. Small locals now had the resources only the urban locals had had up until then.
Another event of the late '60s and early '70s was the movement of administrators out of the Association. As the administrators left WEA and identified with superintendents and school boards, teachers were left free to pursue a more assertive bargaining posture.
Early strikes a necessary last resort
Teachers did not start negotiating with any intent of going on strike. They simply saw negotiations as a way to have a professional voice in issues affecting their everyday working life and their work with students. They also viewed it as a process to increase the stature of the teaching profession.
But as school boards stiffened their resistance to this form of "teacher encroachment," teachers became more determined and finally resorted to the one last tactic which remained open to them.
The first K-12 teacher strike in Washington occurred in an unlikely place Aberdeen. On the evening of May 10, 1972, some 200 teachers there voted to go on strike. Unresolved issues included class size, use of teacher aides, salary, planning time and medical insurance.
It was an unbelievably frightening thing to do to be first. Those who viewed themselves as "professional" saw a conflict in their own values. Yet this form of concerted action seemed the only way left to assert their professional voice and to redress unacceptable conditions for themselves and their students.
For three days they walked together on picket lines. Then, the school district went to Grays Harbor County Superior Court where the judge ordered an end to the strike. Aberdeen Education Association members met again on Sunday evening, May 15 and debated whether or not to continue on strike in face of the judge's back-to-work order. After much debate they voted, under protest, to return to work.
But that was not the end of the Aberdeen story. Because of the courage and commitment of Aberdeen teachers, school district employer-employee relations had turned a corner and were never to look back. As a result of the strike, Governor Dan Evans appointed a "Blue Ribbon Panel" to hear the issues and recommend a settlement. The strike issues were then negotiated to resolution. By all measures this first strike was a success.
Evergreen unity: A turning point
A year later, the action shifted to the Evergreen School District near Vancouver. There, the issues were a reduction-in-force proposal by the board, class size, planning time, specialists, salary, fringe benefits and personal leave. Evergreen was a rapidly growing district of over 300 teachers who were among the lowest paid in the state. The school board and superintendent were very reactionary.
On May 13, 1973, with but one dissenting vote, teachers there decided to go on strike. The next day schools closed and remained closed for two weeks.
What makes this strike a significant step in achieving full bargaining rights was the refusal of the teachers to return to work when Superior Court Judge Guthrie J. Langsdorf handed down an injunction. The judge, then near retirement, clearly had not calculated the practical limits of his power and the escalating effect his order had on bargaining.
When the district asked the judge to enforce his order, he called two EEA leaders into court and asked them to order Evergreen teachers back to work. President Fred Ensman and Action Committee chair Dick Johnson respectfully but firmly declined his order. He immediately sent them to jail. Still, Evergreen teachers remained on strike despite the fact that each one knew he or she could be the next to be jailed.
Two days later the judge called newly appointed interim President John Zavodsky before his bench. Zavodsky's answer was the same as Ensman's and Johnson's, and he was jailed. Next, the EEA appointed a respected older woman member as president. The EEA had correctly calculated Judge Langsdorf's male chauvinism. He refused to jail her as well as any of the entire membership who had marched to his court room en masse to surrender.
The next move was now up to the school district. The court had not beaten the teachers into submission. The board had to really bargain for the first time. Settlement came on May 25, but Judge Langsdorf was not through. He refused to order the 10 lost school days made up, declaring the strike was an "insurrection."
Next, he let the three Evergreen leaders out of jail temporarily to finish school and again in early July during the National Education Association convention in Portland. With 6,000 teachers meeting across the river, he took no chances on a mass demonstration. After the convention, he continued their incarceration indefinitely until they repudiated their actions to refuse to order their fellow teachers back to work.
Ensman and Johnson served 45 days and Zavodsky served 43 days in jail. Langsdorf put them in separate jails and limited their visitation rights to 10 minutes per week, far less than convicted criminals in those same jails received.
The sacrifice of those Evergreen teachers had a tremendous impact on the course of bargaining in Washington. The strike, though a course of last resort, was a strategy that could cause an obstinate school board or superintendent to bargain in the true sense of the word.
In the next few years, other strikes took place in Elma, Edmonds, Mead, Yelm, Central Kitsap, Goldendale and Kelso. The first fall strikes occurred in 1974 in Federal Way, Tacoma, Mukilteo and Olympic College. Federal Way, in particular, was a landmark strike because the district, using premium pay, hired strikebreakers or "scabs" as they quickly came to be called to keep the schools open. The tension between striking teachers and the strikebreakers created an intense situation for 20 days that most school districts did not want to repeat.
1976 brings a new bargaining law
By 1975 it was clear to teachers and the Legislature that a new bargaining law was needed one that better regulated the process, but also one which spelled out teacher rights to bargain in the true sense of the word.
The Educational Employment Relations Act was lobbied through the Legislature by the WEA. It took effect on January 1, 1976. Also created was the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC), which was given authority to administer all of Washington's various public employee bargaining acts.
Lawmakers struck community college bargaining rights from the original WEA bill, although faculty persisted in bargaining contracts despite the adversities of the old law. After several tries, a new community college collective bargaining law cleared the Legislature in 1987.
The Legislature omitted language in the 1976 law that specifically would have permitted strikes by teachers. However, the Legislature also declined to pass any legislation specifically banning strikes, thus leaving Washington statutes silent on the subject to this day.
Under the new law, locals across the state went to the bargaining table with full-blown collective bargaining contract proposals. The WEA increased the clout of the locals in two ways. First, the UniServ staff devoted a major portion of their time organizing locals to bargain. Second, locals coordinated their bargaining on a regional basis. That way a breakthrough by one local could be repeated by others.
Members by the hundreds committed a large portion of their lives to the research, member surveying, training, contract writing and bargaining necessary to achieve those early contracts.
Yesterday's action gives us today's rights
WEA members' success in the late 1970s has given all educational employees the contract provisions which we take for granted today and which did not exist for teachers in 1965. Most contracts today include:
- Strong non-discrimination rights
- A right to a personal life
- Paid leaves including sick leave, emergency leave, personal leave, child birth and many others
- Defined evaluation procedures and criteria
- Class size limits with many taking into account the impact of special needs students
- Right to inspect personnel files
- Specific work days and hours
- Safety provisions to protect staff and students
- Academic freedom
- Additional pay for extra time and responsibilities
- Fair grievance procedures
- "Just cause" provisions protecting teachers being disciplined
- Fair layoff and recall provisions
- Inservice training opportunities
- Job posting and transfer rights
- Prohibition against assigning teachers non-teaching duties
- Sick leave cashout
- Fringe benefits including medical, dental, vision, life and long-term disability insurances and many others!
A majority of local associations and school districts today have peaceful, collaborative bargaining processes a cooperative spirit that has evolved thanks to the determination of those willing to fight for a voice in decisions affecting their lives and their profession. Over the past 30 years, districts have come to understand that teachers and other school employees have professional insights into the educational process that should be reflected in contract agreements. Three decades of progress that should never be taken for granted.
WEA evolves while maintaining traditional commitments
Today's WEA and NEA leaders share a commitment to taking greater responsibility for the quality of public education, the professionalism and competence of our members, and the learning of our students. We remain dedicated to improving education policy and funding without abandoning a commitment to our hard-won gains through collective bargaining.
The rights and benefits enjoyed by today's educational employees are not a gift from a generous school board or Legislature. They were won through the work and sacrifice of ordinary WEA members who believed in the right to dignity and a voice in their profession.
Our work is not done. Despite the positive relationships that exist in so many school districts today, contract rights are very fragile and new issues arise that require members today to keep the commitment of those who went before them. Complacency is not an option. Dedication and unity is required to continue forward to further improve our profession and Washington's public schools.