YAKIMA, Wash. -- Yakima Education Association President Steve McKenna said the union isn’t worried that strikes by public employees aren’t technically legal under Washington state law.
Teachers and certified staff in the Yakima School District voted Tuesday to strike if they are unable to reach an agreement with administrators by the start of school on Monday.
“We would get legal help on this situation. We’ve done our due diligence,” McKenna said. “We made sure we’re on solid ground.”
The roughly 1,000 union members serve more than 16,000 students in the Yakima Valley’s biggest school district.
An interpretation of Washington law from former state Attorney General Rob McKenna in 2006 — which the office still stands by, a spokeswoman said Wednesday — says that teachers and other public school district employees cannot legally strike.
“In Washington, state and local public employees do not have a legally protected right to strike,” the attorney general wrote. “No such right existed at common law, and none has been granted by statute.”
However, in that same opinion, the attorney general said the state won’t punish school district employees who do strike.
“Although we have located three statutes affirmatively prohibiting public employees from striking, we have located no Washington statutes imposing penalties on employees of state or local government for engaging in a strike,” he wrote.
That explains why thousands of Seattle teachers who walked out of schools for five days in 2015 — affecting 50,000 students — faced no legal repercussions. Same with the hundreds of teachers who walked out of Pasco schools for eight days that same year.
While no penalties are spelled out in state law for public employees who strike, school districts do have one legal option.
The attorney general’s opinion says that school districts whose employees are striking can bring the union to court. If the district wins, a judge can order the employees to end the strike with an injunction. If employees don’t comply with the court’s order, they could face such penalties as fines or — in rare cases — even jail time.
When asked if the district would seek an injunction against its employees if they strike, a spokeswoman for the Yakima School District said no administrators were available to comment.
Steve McKenna said he’s not worried about that possibility.
“We would ignore an injunction,” he said.
Contract negotiations between teachers and administrators have been tense statewide this summer.
The Yakima district — like all districts across the state — is getting millions of dollars in additional funds because of the Legislature’s response to the McCleary decision, a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that found Washington wasn’t adequately funding K-12 education. Employees say the district can afford to give them a better salary increase than its offering. Administrators say the situation they’re in is complex because of significant differences in education funding from the state, and say they need to budget additional dollars responsibly.
Teachers and administrators will return to the bargaining table on Thursday.