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Wash. Teachers Return to Class With Demands Unmet

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Teachers participating in the largest multi-district strike in Washington State's history returned to the classroom last week without gaining a commitment to meet their demands from either the legislature or Gov. Booth Gardner.

The 21,000 strikers ended their walkout on April 30, two days after the legislature completed its regular session without having passed a budget or an education-reform package.

More than 30 local affiliates of the Washington Education Association in the Puget Sound region went on strike April 18 to gain higher teacher salaries and increased state funding for precollegiate education.

The strike idled more than 300,000 of the state's 800,000 students. Union officials hoped that the strike would force Governor Gardner or legislative leaders to convene a special session immediately to resolve the fiscal situation.

But Mr. Gardner, citing a stalemate in the budget process, called for a "cooling-off period" and postponed the special session to June 15. Backers of a special session did not garner enough votes in the legislature to convene it on their own.

Faced with a month-and-a-half legislative recess, wea members voted to go back to work. The union, however, noted in a statement that it "may chose to resume the strike at any time if legislative action or inaction demands it."

"A return to our classrooms does not spell an end to our fight," said Carla Nuxoll, president of the 50,000-member union. "The battle field has simply shifted. Instead of focusing on Olympia during the recess before the special session, we will take our issues to legislators' home districts."

But other observers said the outcome of the strike was a setback for the union, which may have undermined its relationship with lawmakers and local school officials while failing to achieve any concrete gains.

Focus on the Statehouse

Momentum to strike had been building since last year when the wea's 300 locals began polling their members. But the decision to walk out was delayed until mid-April, when the legislature was in the middle of budget debates. (See Education Week, April 24, 1991.)

Unlike most teacher strikes, the work stoppage was aimed at the legislature, which provides nearly 75 percent of public-school funding in the state.

The wea is demanding an in crease in the percentage of the state budget allocated to education. It also is seeking more funding for school construction, programs for special- needs students, especially in urban districts, and textbooks and supplies.

In addition, the union is demand ing minimum salary increases of 10 percent over the biennium for teachers, classified employees, and community-college instructors.

Governor Gardner has recommended increases of 4.4 percent and 3.8 percent for the two years, and budgets passed by the House and the Senate, which are now in conference, also contain an overall 8.2 per cent pay raise for teachers.

The Senate budget contains $131 million more than the House budget for precollegiate education.

Teresa Moore, a spokesman for the wea, said the union--which has frequently been at odds with the Democratic Governor over budget issues-- was further angered by Mr. Gardner's decision not to call a special session immediately.

"His announcement totally ended any movement on the budget," she said, arguing that the Governor made his move in order to end the strike.

Mary McKnew, the Governor's ed ucation aide, said his stand on a special session had been based on fiscal concerns, not labor issues. She said the state would save $50,000 a day by not having the entire legislature in session while only members of conference committees needed to meet.

Ms. McKnew also noted that new revenue forecasts are due out on L June 15, and suggested that any surpluses could be channeled to education.

Gains and Losses

Union leaders insisted last week that the strike was successful even though it did not lead to a budget agreement. They claimed that it drew public attention to education funding, and spurred the Governor and the state schools superintendent to recommend the formation of a commission to examine long-term education issues, including funding.

Union leaders said they were also pleased that two key Democrats in the legislature, the Speaker of the House and the Senate minority leader, agreed to consider spending part of the state's $260-million "rainy day" fund on education. Such a move is op posed by Mr. Gardner and the Republican majority in the Senate.

Some lawmakers and representa tives of education groups, however, disagreed with the union's upbeat as sessment of the walkout. They said that despite days of lobbying and demonstrating at the Capitol, teachers failed to budge the Governor from his opposition to raising taxes or using the emergency fund for education spending. And the strike may have made teachers as many enemies as friends in the legislature and in their home communities, they noted.

"I don't think the strike helped a lot," said Senator Cliff Bailey, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "I would say they lost more than they gained."

Larry Swift, executive director of the Washington State School Directors' Association, said the strike has strained relations between teachers and school-board members.

More than half of the striking teachers, Mr. Swift noted, have contracts that bar strikes. And all the contracts, he said, contain negotiated provisions, such as the school-year calendar, that have had to be disregarded as a result of the work stoppage. The school year now must be extended into late June in some districts to make up lost days, he said.

"School-board members throughout the state question what those negotiated contracts mean now," he said.

Margaret Harto, president of the state parent-teacher association, also said teachers may have lost more than they gained.

"I do believe that their tactic educated legislators to the fact that teachers can be strong advocates for education," she said. ''Unfortunately, it caused a polarization between parents and teachers, between school-board members and teachers, and in some cases, between students and teachers."

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