Pasco teachers announced their intention to strike if no agreement can be reached with the school district by Aug. 30.
Seventy-seven percent of attendees at a Pasco Association of Educators meeting Wednesday voted to approve either a new labor contract or a strike when they meet again Aug. 31.
Vote totals were not available, but more than 400 people filled the Steamfitters Local 598 hall, with more sitting on the lawn outside.
The union needed a two-thirds vote to approve the strike, which would be the first in Pasco since 1979.
“What we have is a mandate for all of our members to stand strong and represent the group at large,” said Debbie Hodge, an Ochoa Middle School teacher who is a member of the union’s bargaining team.
Teachers heard speeches before the vote from veterans of the 10-day Pasco strike in 1979 and a 2009 Kent teacher strike, as well as an attorney providing legal information.
Several teachers spoke during the meeting, with the only one who questioned the strike saying he would like more information on the proposals from the union.
The district was disappointed to learn of the union’s decision, spokeswoman Leslee Caul said.
“We are hopeful that an agreement can be reached through the mediation process,” she said. “We value our teachers and the important work they do and we look forward to getting our students back to school Sept. 1.”
By comparison, 94 percent of Pasco teachers voted to take part in a one-day May 21 walkout to protest state inaction on education.
The union was happy with Wednesday’s vote total, president Greg Olson said.
“I wish we could get more, I wish we could get 100 percent,” he said. “But the goal is not to strike, the goal is to get results.”
The most recent negotiations last week left a large gap between the sides. The district was offering $3.3 million in new spending for the next year related to teachers, on top of the 3 percent cost-of-living raise already approved by the state. But the union is asking for $14.9 million in new spending, more than half of which would go toward an 11.2 percent pay increase for all teachers.
Last week’s discussions used a mediator from the state Public Employment Relations Commission, who was called in by the school district because little progress had been made over eight days of negotiating. More meetings are planned Aug. 19-21.
The district has criticized the union for not reducing its demands enough, but Matthew Polk, a Pasco High music teacher who is the union’s lead bargainer, said the administration hasn’t even bargained.
“We are continuing to reach out to the district to resolve the issues the district faces,” Polk said. “The superintendent has prohibited her team from meeting with us without a mediator present, but we are willing to address the concerns in any capacity possible.”
District officials have said a strike would be illegal, since the contract that expires Aug. 31 has a “no strike” clause, and it would carry over if no new deal is in place.
Former state Attorney General Rob McKenna wrote in a blog Wednesday that all teacher strikes are illegal in Washington, comparing the state teachers union’s record in court to the Baltimore Orioles being no-hit by Seattle Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma.
“Union leaders know this,” McKenna wrote. “That’s why they strenuously avoid prolonging strikes to the point that a court would rule against them and order teachers back to work or levy fines. This process could be sped up, but school boards are often reluctant to be seen as ‘suing’ their teachers.”
Polk pointed out that the employment relations commission asks if a strike is a possibility in its own mediation forms.
“If the state really believes that striking isn’t an option, they wouldn’t make it an option during mediation,” Polk said. “Moreover, this is about doing the right thing. The debate about legality or illegality of striking is the wrong issue. The right issue is how to improve our schools. It’s morally right, and it’s what we need to do.”
Teachers who are worried about missing paychecks during a strike are ultimately likely to get them, Hodge said.
“We will work 180 days,” she said. “They may not be the 180 days we traditionally work, but those will be the days we get paid for.”