On Saturday, teachers and support staff in Seattle voted to approve the tentative agreement reached between the Seattle Education Association (SEA) and Seattle Public Schools (SPS) on August 31. With a very low turnout, the SEA was able to push through its sellout contract for all three bargaining units—teachers, paraeducators and office staff—with votes in favor of 83 percent, 90 percent and 97 percent, respectively.
While the number of school employees who voted has not been released, teachers told World Socialist Web Site reporters that less than a third of the 5,000 SEA members attended the meeting to vote. In contrast, only 12 days before educators filled Benaroya Hall to capacity when they voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike on the first day of school. Attendance was so low Saturday among paraeducators that they initially failed to meet quorum, with the SEA forced to send text message alerts to their membership to ensure that more attended.
The low turnout is an indication of the deep disillusionment with the SEA, which has overseen decades of concessions contracts and budget cuts that have undermined the living standards of school employees and public education as whole. Many teachers said they voted reluctantly for the deal, believing that the union undermined any momentum for a strike by ordering them to report to the first day of classes last week rather than calling a strike until teachers could seriously discuss and vote on the deal.
The one-year contract, whose central feature is a 10.5 percent wage increase, is an insult to public education workers in Seattle, where the cost of living has skyrocketed in recent years. The contract continues to deny healthcare coverage to substitutes, maintains overcrowded classrooms and high counselor- and nurse-to-student ratios, enforces poverty-level wages on paraeducators and office staff, and does nothing to address the overall crisis in public education.
Over 200 school districts across the state of Washington are going through the process of negotiating one-year contracts in the wake of the state legislature allocating $776 million toward improving teacher salaries. The one-time payment is the result of the McCleary state Supreme Court ruling, which found the state in violation of the constitutionally mandated “paramount responsibility” to provide quality education to Washington children.
The average salary increase for teachers in districts that have settled is roughly 17 percent, while school districts such as North Beach, North River and others secured over 30 percent salary increases. Tacoma, Tumwater, Battle Ground and Centralia are all currently on strike, while numerous other districts have yet to reach tentative agreements and could walk out in the coming week.
The SEA, working in conjunction with the Washington Education Association (WEA) and the National Education Association (NEA), deliberately isolated Seattle educators from other educators across the state and from other sections of the working class within Seattle itself.
After SEA members voted overwhelmingly to authorize strike action on August 28, the SEA rapidly reached a deal with SPS through secret negotiations and ordered educators to report to school the following Wednesday, September 5, violating the basic principle, “no contract, no work.” For four days, the SEA withheld the tentative agreement from its members until after the SEA Board voted to recommend it last Tuesday. Teachers were then expected to read and discuss the 79-page document before Saturday’s meeting, during the exhausting first week of classes.
The role of the SEA in this process thoroughly exposes their hostility to teachers and all public education workers. In imposing its sellout contract on Seattle educators, the SEA received the dutiful assistance of the Social Equity Educators (SEE), a supposedly dissident faction within the union that is backed by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and led by ISO member Jesse Hagopian.
The SEE distributed leaflets at the meeting titled, “Vote No on the TA! Continue the Fight for 15%! Continue the fight for racial justice!” While formally opposing the agreement, the leaflet was actually a sales pitch for the deal. It begins by listing “the most significant improvements in the TA [tentative agreement],” parroting the SEA’s contract “highlights” document sent out to members last week.
The SEE leaflet then declares, “To be clear, in the context of the contemporary labor movement, this isn’t a concessionary proposal.” The SEE prostrates themselves before the SEA, writing, “[D]espite our disagreements, we deeply appreciate the hard work of the negotiating team.”
In the most tepid and insincere fashion, the group calls for a “No” vote in order to urge the negotiating team to go back to the table to secure a 15 percent wage increase, create “racial equity” by funding ethnic studies and “restorative justice” programs, and provide health care for daily subs, among other demands. In its typically mealy-mouthed fashion, the SEE raises no demand for a strike, only listing it as a “possible next step,” and saying nothing about Seattle teachers spearheading the fight for a statewide strike against the sabotage of the SEA and WEA.
The whole purpose of this cynical exercise is to lend credibility to the unions, which, far from leading any struggle to defend teachers and public education, are the biggest opponents of a fight against the bipartisan attack on public education. In Chicago, where ISO member Jesse Sharkey has assumed the presidency of the Chicago Teachers Union, the so-called Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) betrayed the 2012 strike against Mayor Rahm Emanuel, paving the way for the shutdown of scores of schools. In response to the teacher rebellions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and other states, the ISO and other pseudo-left groups intervened to channel opposition back behind the unions and the Democratic Party and smother these struggles.
Supporters of the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) distributed hundreds of copies of the WSWS Teacher Newsletter statement “Reject the sellout in Seattle! Expand strike statewide and throughout the country!” The statement made clear that the SEA and SEE were betraying Seattle educators, declaring, “A special warning must be made about the Social Equity Educators faction, which is an apologist for the union and the Democratic Party.” It called for school employees to elect rank-and-file committees to take the conduct of the struggle out of the hands of the SEA, and for Seattle teachers to reach out to educators and other sections of workers and fight for a statewide and national strike to defend the right to livable wages and high quality education.
At one point after the voting, an agitated SEE member approached a WSWS reporter during an interview, snatched the leaflet from the teacher’s hands, and denounced the SEP campaigners as “outsiders” and “crazy” who had no business talking to teachers. Soon thereafter, security at the venue told the WSWS reporting team that the SEA had requested that we leave, undoubtedly at the request of the SEE, whose supporters stood by as the SEP campaigners were forced to leave.
Outside the venue, SEP members and supporters spoke with numerous teachers, paraeducators and other public education workers, with many expressing their opposition to the contract and condemning the SEA. Multiple educators expressed disappointment with the one-year contract, stressing that they’ll “be on strike next year” because none of the fundamental issues been resolved.
Melia and Dano, two teachers at Alki Elementary, said they voted “No” on the contract. Dano commented: “I think that the pay increase is not what it should be or could be. I think we’re settling out of fear.
“For an educator, for a substitute, to be able to work for 180 days, which is as much as we work as teachers, and not get any healthcare, that’s crazy,” he added. “It should be a basic human right. It’s not ethical for members who are represented by the same union to not get the same basic health rights.”
Melia noted that the state and school district are in their best financial situation in decades, with SPS operating with a deep reserve budget of $8-16 million. As a Seattle teacher with 26 years, she declared: “They’ve always said, ‘We have no money.’ Well now we have money earmarked for it. It’s abysmal what they’re trying to slide through.”
Regarding counselors, Melia noted: “There are 80 elementary schools, and they only addressed the high schools, reducing the ratio by 25 students. That’s not enough, and they didn’t even address the counselors who are overloaded at the elementary schools.”
Seattle educators must draw the necessary conclusions from this experience. The fact that Seattle educators will return to work Monday only serves to isolate and weaken the four districts currently on strike, and Seattle teachers themselves. Public education workers in Seattle must begin to organize themselves independently of both the SEA and the SEE, through the election of rank-and-file committees. The fight for the broadest industrial mobilization of the working class must be combined with a political struggle by the working class in opposition to both big-business parties, which have decimated public education even as they squander trillions on corporate tax cuts and endless wars.