Wash. teachers remain strike despite judge order

September 15, 2011 - 7:10 PM

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — Teachers in Washington state's third-largest school district voted overwhelmingly Thursday to remain on strike, in defiance of a judge's order that they return to work.

Some 93 percent of the nearly 1,600 teachers at the Tacoma Dome arena said they wanted to keep picketing.

The Tacoma School District teachers walked out Tuesday over issues including pay, class size and how job transfers are handled. A state judge issued an order Wednesday that they go back to class, but the teachers refused.

Many students have joined the picket lines.

"Each time we have this vote, it gets stronger," said Tacoma Education Association President Andy Coons.

The 1,900 teachers had been working without a contract since school started Sept. 1. After weekend contract negotiations failed to result in an agreement, 87 percent of the union's membership voted to walk out.

Classes were canceled for a third day and 28,000 students kept home. Representatives of the union and school district were meeting with a state mediator.

"We didn't have enough teachers show up to run the school," said district spokesman Dan Voelpel from its headquarters, where a demonstration was held. Honking and cheering could be heard in the background. "We're evaluating our options at this point."

Christy Wray, who teaches kindergarten at Whitman Elementary, has been with the school system during the past three Tacoma teacher strikes, including one in the 1970s and another in the 1990s. The teacher of 41 years said it was different this time.

"The issues in the past couple of strikes were transparent and both sides worked toward reaching an agreement," she said as she stood outside Lincoln High School. "This strike, we're being treated like we're naughty children."

A 2006 state attorney general's opinion said state and local public employees, including teachers, have no legally protected right to strike. But that opinion also noted state law lacks specific penalties for striking public employees.

The district has argued in court that 19 different judges in Washington state have ruled teacher strikes illegal since 1976. The union argued that the court should not inject itself into the bargaining process, and also suggested an injunction only applies to union leaders.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff will hold a hearing Friday to determine whether the union and the district are complying with his order to return to work.

Chushcoff said earlier that the law is unclear over whether public employees have the right to strike in Washington, but he said he would issue a temporary restraining order against the picketing teachers in Tacoma.

A hearing on an injunction to permanently stop the strike was scheduled for Sept. 27.

Tacoma teachers earned an average salary of $63,793 during the last school year, according to the district. They are the best-paid teachers in Pierce County and about the fifth-highest paid among the state's largest districts, behind teachers in Everett, Northshore, Seattle and Bellevue, according to state data.

The Legislature included in its state budget a 1.9 percent cut in teacher pay, but left it up to school districts to figure out how to save that money.

Some districts have made cuts elsewhere, some have cut teacher pay, and others have worked out compromises with their local teachers' union.

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Associated Press writer Manuel Valdes in Seattle contributed to this report.