State to wait out teachers strike for now

TACOMA - The state Attorney General's Office says it's illegal for public employees to strike, but that doesn't mean the state will do anything about the teachers who are striking in the Bethel School District.

Attorney General Rob McKenna drafted an opinion on the issue last year that says state employees don't have the constitutionally protected right to strike unless it's expressly granted to them by the Legislature.

In Washington, it's not. But the Legislature doesn't establish penalties for public employees who go on strike, either.

The state's opinion is based on a 1958 case between the Port of Seattle and the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union that references government's "general immunity" from a strike.

Worker versus taxpayer

The idea is that taxpayers' constitutional right to use government services outweighs the right of public employees to picket, said David Stolier, an attorney in McKenna's office who specializes in education issues.

Stolier said the question of whether it's legal for teachers to strike comes up with every dispute between unions and school districts.

Even though the state says teacher strikes are illegal, a strike would have to last a long time or be particularly disruptive for the state to consider getting involved, he said.

"There's not a lot we can do in the early part of a strike like this," he said this week of the situation in Bethel. "It's really an employer-employee dispute at this point."

One way the state would consider taking action is if the strike lasted so long that it made it impossible for students to have a full-length school year, Stolier said.

"Theoretically, if it got to the point that students' right to have an education became threatened, our office might get involved," he said.

That's never happened, he said. And normally the employer would be the one to pursue illegal action before the Attorney General's Office would.

No legal action yet

Bethel School District spokesman Mark Wenzel said the district isn't considering legal action against the Bethel Education Association at this point.

"We're really focused on trying to get back to the bargaining table," Wenzel said. "That's all we're focused on right now."

Washington Education Association spokeswoman Eddie Westerman said teachers unions have a different take on the legality of public employee strikes.

Westerman said state statutes on strikes are silent and that no case specifically addresses the issue.

"The law allows collective bargaining between teachers and their districts, but neither allows nor prohibits strikes," Westerman said.

"Each case must be decided on its own merits."

Bills have been introduced in past legislative sessions to make teacher strikes illegal, but they have all died.

Stolier said the law regarding teacher strikes would be clearer had an appellate court ever ruled on such a case.

King County and Snohomish Superior courts have ruled against teachers unions, but those decisions didn't set a precedent since they were in lower courts.

Bethel School District classes did not begin as scheduled Wednesday as teachers went on strike over disagreements on workload, class size and pay.