There have been about 75 teachers' strikes in the state of Washington since the first one, in Aberdeen, in 1972. The author of this People's History, Steve Kink, had a long career with the state’s largest union representing educators -- the Washington Education Association (WEA). He gained extensive experience in collective bargaining and in organizing and coordinating strike activities, eventually serving as WEA’s Field Services Manager and Deputy Executive Director. Steve was the chief bargainer for Washington Education Association’s Staff Union (WEASO) and later a WEA management bargainer.
There have been roughly 75 teacher strikes in the state of Washington since the first strike in the spring of 1972. Over that time educators and school district leadership reached agreement on thousands of local contracts for the state’s 295 school districts. Nearly all of these agreements were made without a strike. Among those locals that did strike, several are worth noting: the strike of the longest duration in Marysville, the first strike on the eastside of the state in Mead, the strike by college faculty at Olympic College, and the first fall strike -- one that delayed the opening of school -- in Federal Way.
Additionally, two strikes are worth special attention because each set a precedent for the future of negotiations in the state. They are the Aberdeen strike in 1972 and the Evergreen strike in 1973.
Aberdeen and Evergreen
Why are these two strikes so significant?
Teachers in Aberdeen and Evergreen cleared new and important pathways for Washington’s K-12 educators to achieve their bargaining goals.
Aberdeen was the first teacher strike in the state. Aberdeen teachers proved they were willing to go all the way to a strike to have their voices heard in their effort to shape their work environment. It also put school boards and administrators on notice that teachers were serious about influencing decisions that impacted education beyond their own classrooms. That Aberdeen’s teachers were willing to take this action would forever change employer-employee relationship in Washington’s school districts.
Aberdeen was important because it was the first, but the Evergreen strike showed the strength of commitment among teachers to improve the learning and working environment in their schools.
Evergreen teachers set the mark for how far they were willing to go to achieve a quality, comprehensive collective bargaining agreement. They demonstrated an unwavering commitment to this goal. Their action changed the way school management viewed teachers, made administrators think twice about the ramifications of a strike. Because of Evergreen there actually was an improvement in labor relations because the vast majority of districts began to take teachers’ concerns seriously.
What caused these strikes? What sets them apart?
Prior to 1965, Washington’s K-12 public school teachers had no statutory right to provide input or be involved in decisions concerning any of their working conditions. For the most part teachers were considered "professional," yet had little, if any, input individually or collectively regarding their "professional" work environment. Each teacher had only a personal services contract stating that they were hired for one year, their assignment, and their pay. Back then school administrators dominated the WEA even though teachers were the overwhelming majority of the association’s membership. School administrators were the nearly exclusive voice of educators to the public and the legislature.
This began to change when teachers started to assert themselves in the local school districts and within the WEA. Leading to this change was passage of the “Professional Negotiation Act” which allowed teachers for the first time, to “meet and confer” with their districts over wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. Because teachers began taking control of their state association, the WEA was the prime mover in obtaining this legislation.
While this act allowed teachers to deal with their employers on a collective basis over work-related issues, when an impasse was reached, the resolution process unfairly favored school boards. The act did not provide for true collective bargaining.
School boards would negotiate changes in school policy only to then unilaterally change at a later date what had been agreed. The act did not provide for binding contracts between the parties.
Through their union, local teachers attempted to reach binding agreements with limited success. In some districts teacher leaders presented comprehensive contract proposals calling for extensive bargaining over a wide range of school policy and employee working conditions. This was met with great resistance from school boards and administrators because they saw this movement as a threat designed to reduce their power and authority to manage schools. Most school boards went through the motions of the negotiation process outlined in the act only to fall back on their right to adopt policy with or without input from local teachers.
The negotiations process was hugely impacted in the early 1970s when the WEA developed a program called UniServ (short for “Unified Service”). This program provided on-site trained staff to assist local association leaders in advocacy, organizing, bargaining, and defending individual and collective teacher rights. These UniServ staff were hired be change agents -- to inspire and motivate teachers to stand up for themselves and to be a strong voice in their work environment. Local teacher leaders and members finally had someone who was skilled in dealing with district administrators reluctant to change or share any power.
The Great Debate
A great debate was taking place throughout the WEA. Since its inception in 1889 WEA was considered a "professional organization" by the public, by school administrators and by WEA’s own members. But by the 1970s the WEA was acting more like a union. The fact is that during this period the WEA was both.
Although WEA’s local associations presented bargaining proposals that covered a wide range of typical union issues -- wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment -- they also included proposals for change designed to directly improve student learning and instruction.
People started to ask, “How far would local teachers go to obtain their objectives?” Members were divided on this issue. Older members tended to see themselves as "professionals" and were not accustomed to organizing tactics. Younger members were more inclined to stand up and demand change. Many Washington school districts had large numbers of new teachers who came out of the 1960s with ambitions to change the status quo. Many were influenced by the Civil Rights Movement’s call for change and equality in the work place.
Would this division within the ranks of teachers slow progress toward change in the employer-employee relationship? Would any local association venture into uncharted territory and go on strike to reach their goals at the bargaining table? Before 1970 it seemed unlikely.
The First Strike -- Aberdeen, 1972
In 1972 the Aberdeen Education Association actually did the unthinkable. They voted to strike.
They were the first teachers in a Washington school district to do so. How could this happen? Why Aberdeen?
The first answer is leadership. The Aberdeen Education Association (AEA) had three outstanding local leaders in Mike Poitras, Harry Cartham, and Sharon Amos. Members trusted them and admired their integrity. They were advised by their UniServ staff person, John Chase, who just happened to be an outstanding and forward-thinking organizer who was committed to change and to the union movement.
After much member discussion, assessment, and communication with members, they presented a set of proposals to the district. These contract proposals covered salary, class size reduction, health insurance, planning time, and more. At this time the superintendent of the Aberdeen School District, Robert Woodruff, wanted to replace many teachers with non-certificated aides who would be supervised by a few administrator-selected teachers. This was an insult to their professional dignity and the breaking point for the teachers.
Finally on May 11, 1972, the breakdown of bargaining turned into a crisis and then into a strike. AEA leaders, Chase, and the WEA knew what was at stake. Success in the first strike would set a positive precedent. Failure would be a major setback that would extend far beyond the Aberdeen city limits. Chase called in other WEA and UniServ staff to help make sure the AEA strike was a success. Included were Jim Raines, Dale Troxel, and this writer, Steve kink. He also retained the services of Olympia lawyer. Parks Weaver.
It is an understatement to say that the Aberdeen community was somewhat confused by these events. Many supported their teachers. Others thought of teachers as professionals who should not act in this manner. One example of this occurred at a meeting between labor union leaders from Grays Harbor -- a strong union area -- with Chase and me (Steve Kink). Originally these labor leaders opposed the AEA strike. They reasoned that teachers were professionals and should not be allowed to strike. However, after we explained the teachers’ contract proposals they immediately recognized that these were familiar issues. Many were the same as the issues they took up with their employers. When they learned that there was no alternative for teachers but to capitulate, they understood the reason for the strike. Many union members came to support the strike by keeping their kids home from school until the strike ended.
The Aberdeen School District sought to break the strike by obtaining an injunction from the Grays Harbor Superior Court that ordered teachers back to work. The Aberdeen teachers, collectively, were unwilling to defy the injunction and returned to work without a contract but with a commitment to continued bargaining. Everyone knew that even though the strike had ended, the fight wasn’t over. Governor Dan Evans appointed a Blue Ribbon Committee to attempt to resolve the conflict. The Committee included the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and administrators and teachers from other districts. Their findings sided with the teachers on most of the unresolved issues.
Pressure on the district from the committee’s findings, teachers and the public finally resulted in an agreement between the district and the Aberdeen Education Association. In the end the strike was a success because the it brought about the pressure that forced the district to deal with the major issues that had been in dispute. Aberdeen teachers finally had a true voice in their work environment.
Aberdeen broke the ice. They did not achieve all of their goals but they illustrated to the rest of the state that there was a new path available to seek equality -- a level playing field -- in the bargaining process.
The Second Strike -- Evergreen 1973
In early 1972, I was the UniServ staff person assigned to Southwest Washington. The Evergreen Education Association (EEA) was one of my local associations. Its members worked for the Evergreen School District, located just east of Vancouver. It was apparent that this association was on a collision course with the district. I heard story after story of pathetic treatment of teachers by the administration. These 300 teacher members had excellent leadership including Dick Johnson, Fred Ensman, John Zavodsky, Virginia Oliver and Steve Paulson.
A majority of the EEA members were young and had less than five years of teaching experience. They felt uncertain about job security and needed a way to protect themselves from the district’s treatment of them. We set about organizing to procure a contract as a way to ensure this protection.
These leaders availed themselves of WEA training and put together proposals that addressed their grievances in a comprehensive collective bargaining proposal.
They did their homework, which included an in-depth analysis of the District’s budget, both revenue and expenditures, to justify their economic items in their proposal. They established two-way communications with the membership throughout the entire process.
Before leaving to take a new assignment I encouraged them to keep up their efforts. I assured them that, should they vote to strike, I would make myself available to help. I also suggested that they consider asking UniServ staffer John Chase to help prepare for a strike.
The EEA bargainers heard nothing but “NO” to every proposal they made. Thus, EEA leaders called for help to organize for a bargaining crisis and a possible strike.
Chase and I made several visits to Evergreen during the early part of 1973. We would suggest various activities to prepare the members for the escalating crisis. In each case EEA leaders exceeded all our expectations. This was largely due to Dick Johnson in his role as the Crisis Coordinator and other EEA leadership who were thorough when describing these activities to the members. Members had confidence in what their leaders had planned and what they were asking members to do.
With no progress at the bargaining table, it became clear that they would have to strike to achieve a contract. Because of the existing relationship between the District and teachers the EEA leaders and building representatives knew that a strike meant they would likely have to violate an injunction and possibly go to jail. A strike team was put into place.
John Chase served as Strike Organizer, Jim Raines as Chief Bargainer, Roger Cantaloube, Dale Troxel ,and Dick Anderson were Picket Line Coordinators, Tom Lodge provided legal counsel and I was the Internal and External Communications Coordinator.
On Mother’s Day in May 1973, the EEA members held a secret ballot and overwhelmingly voted to strike. Of the 300 members, only a dozen were not on the picket lines after day one on strike.
The District continued just saying “NO” at the bargaining table. Soon they chose to seek an injunction from Judge Guthrie Langsdorf. The EEA held a press conference to announce that, regardless of the issuance of an injunction, the strike would go on until a satisfactory contract agreement was reached. No membership vote was needed to violate the injunction.
On television that night Judge Langsdorf saw Crisis Coordinator Dick Johnson and EEA President Ensman holding the press conference. The next day Judge Langsdorf ordered Johnson and Ensman to his court, He ordered them to direct the teachers back to work. They refused. He sent them to jail. EEA Vice President John Zavodsky was called into court a day after he assumed the duties of president. He too was told by the Judge to order teachers back to work. He refused. He was sent to jail too.
The District ordered principals in each building to take photographs of the EEA building representative so that court officers could identify them and serve them with warrants for their arrest. It was time to take some drastic action. We knew the conditions in the jail were deplorable. We thought the Judge would be reluctant to jail a woman.
Betty Colwell was most willing to serve and was appointed Interim EEA President. A press conference was held to announce her presidency. The next day she received an order to report to the court. That night, Betty and I attended the School Board meeting which was packed with parents. At that meeting Betty announced to the Board, “I have never broken the law or had so much as a traffic ticket, but tomorrow I’m going to jail because of you!” Most parents in attendance were shocked. They were loud in their criticism of the School Board for their lack of action in reaching an agreement with the teachers.
At our next daily strategy meeting, it was decided that we would suggest to members that they all surrender to Judge Langsdorf along with Betty Colwell. A general membership meeting was held that evening. After a brief bargaining report -- describing no movement by the District -- the idea of all teachers surrendering to the Judge was offered for discussion by the members. The dead silence seemed to last an eternity. Then a member said, “What can we take with us to jail?” It wasn’t a question of "would we," it was, "how would we."
The next morning EEA members met in a park across the street from the courthouse to join Colwell on her journey to Langsdorf’s courtroom. The media could not believe what was happening. Betty bid the media farewell on the courthouse steps, then she and roughly 300 teachers headed inside. The courtroom could not hold all of them so most spilled into hallways throughout courthouse.
Judge Langsdorf did not have jail space for everyone and chose not to jail Colwell. Frustrated, he called in the District Board members and ordered them to bargain in good faith. Authentic negotiations got underway with the help of a federal mediator and staff from the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Office. A comprehensive collective bargaining agreement was reached after two weeks on strike. This was Washington’s first full contract achieved from a strike.
What price did Evergreen teachers pay for their action? What commitment was required? Langsdorf declared the strike an insurrection and would not allow the District to make up the days lost in the strike. This was unfortunate for the students of the Evergreen School District but a necessary price to pay to achieve improvements in the District’s learning and working environment..
Johnson, Ensman, and Zavodsky bore the brunt of Langsdorf’s anger and paid the biggest price. He left Johnson and Ensman in jail for 45 days and Zavodsky in jail for 43 days. They were in cells along with violent criminals and kept in the abhorrent conditions. They were held in high regard by other association leaders for their commitment to achieve a contract and secure a real voice in their working conditions and professional environment. Colwell and 300 members spoke with one voice when they were willing to surrender themselves for the cause and to support their jailed leaders. This is unprecedented in the state’s bargaining history.
As a result of the strikes in Aberdeen (1972) and Evergreen (1973), other teachers and educational employees throughout the state of Washington had the means and new-found power to achieve their bargaining goals. Contract bargaining became a norm for educational employees across the state. These two strikes were also instrumental in leading to the adoption of the Educational Employment Relations Act in 1976 that is still in effect today, thanks to the fortitude of the leaders and members of the Aberdeen and Evergreen Education Associations.