Washington’s Governor, Labor Negotiator

By Sean Cavanagh — September 23, 2011 1 min read
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Tales of labor strife in states and school districts are pretty common these days, but warring factions in Washington state recently managed to find a peaceful resolution—after spending some time together in the office of Gov. Christine Gregoire.

The governor took the unusual step of intervening in an acrimonious dispute between the teachers’ union and district officials in the Tacoma school system.

Near the end of the week, the two sides announced they had reached an accord to end the dispute, which reportedly had centered late in the process over the issue of teachers’ right to transfer to different schools, and the extent to which that would be governed by seniority and other factors.

Gregoire, a Democrat in her second term in office, asked the two sides to come to her office in Olympia for talks, after earlier discussions had reached an impasse. The two sides spent about seven hours immersed in talks, according to the governor’s office, before coming to a deal. The precise impact of the governor’s involvement is unclear. But Tacoma’s schools have reopened for classes, after losing eight days to a strike, district officials said.

“The dispute had gone on for far too long and had disrupted the lives of families and the district’s 28,000 students,” said Scott Whiteaker, a spokesman for the governor, in an e-mail. “It was clear that something else was necessary to jump-start negotiations.”

With school districts facing severe financial pressures, and state policymakers pushing ahead with major changes in teacher personnel policies, labor tensions aren’t likely to ease any time soon. The Obama administration has urged collaboration between labor and management (and they’ve also urged states to play a more active role in bringing the two sides together).

Would other governors take as active a role as Gregoire did in local labor disputes? Is that even their role, and if so, under what circumstances?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.