Kennewick teachers could risk fines if they strike Tuesday

Kennewick teachers vote to strike if no agreement by Aug. 26

Rob Woodford, Kennewick Education Association president, tells about the vote by Kennewick teachers to strike if a tentative contract agreement with the board and district is not reached by Aug. 26.
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Rob Woodford, Kennewick Education Association president, tells about the vote by Kennewick teachers to strike if a tentative contract agreement with the board and district is not reached by Aug. 26.

Kennewick teachers and the district returned to mediation for a third day Friday as parents and students wait to hear if there will be class Tuesday.

The Kennewick Education Association and the school district continue to meet with a state mediator even as teachers plan on an informational picket line Monday.

But there’s already some who say a strike would be illegal.

It’s a not a new debate.

Laws and punishments

In a Thursday post on Facebook, the Kennewick School District said any strike by the teachers would not be legal.

They were joined by the conservative think tank Washington Policy Center, which also said any walkout would be breaking the law.

The district and policy center are technically correct, but unions have gone on strike before anyway, risking and sometimes paying fines.

That was the case four years ago, when the Pasco teachers union was fined by a Tri-Cities judge for walking out.

The law preventing public employees from striking is part of Public Employees’ Collective Bargaining, and it covers a wide swath of employees in local and state government.

The Washington Education Association disagrees that the law applies to them, said Linda Mullen, a union spokeswoman.

The union points to a 1975 law, the Education Employment Relations Act, which doesn’t have any reference to striking.

The Washington Policy Center rejected that argument.

In a 2015 blog post, it said that “teachers are clearly public employees. In fact, the purpose of these school strikes is to pressure state lawmakers to provide more public funding for teacher pay and health benefits. The ‘employer’ that is the target of the strike action is a public entity – the state.”

Judges across the state have come down on the side of school districts. Last year, judges said potential strikes at Tumwater and Longview would be illegal.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington, D.C., think tank, also contents that Washington law prevents teachers from striking.

Attorney general opinion

Attorney General Rob McKenna spoke to the issue as part of 2006 opinion that was given to then-Rep. Toby Nixon.

McKenna said public employees don’t have a “legally protected right to strike,” but state law also doesn’t provide a way to punish public employees if they strike anyway.

In the past, school districts have had to get a court order requiring teachers to return to work. Judges can then fine teachers if they disobey.

In Tumwater and Longview last year, the district got court orders to stop the strikes, but the judges refused to levy any fines. A 2009 case in Federal Way ended before teachers were fined for walking out.

And in Pasco in 2015, Franklin County Superior Court Judge Alex Ekstrom ordered Pasco teachers back to work.

The teachers refused. After a few days, he issued a $2,000-per-day fine. After nine days out of work, teachers agreed to a contract.

The union paid only $5,600 in fines.

Still talking

The good news for Kennewick parents is that the sides are still talking. The state mediator shared proposals between the sides Thursday and Friday.

Teachers said they ended Thursday less hopeful than when they started Wednesday. They were expecting another proposal to come Friday morning.

The district peeled back the curtain on negotiations by posting the written offers and counteroffers on its website throughout much of the negotiation, but the latest round had not been posted Friday.

While the district and the association reached tentative agreements on more than 40 items, they remain divided on pay for some levels of teachers, along with several other issues, such as health care, class size and classroom safety.

Teachers say they want a competitive wage compared with Richland and Pasco.

Administrators say the comparisons are not fair because of circumstances in those districts.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.