A Thurston County judge ruled Friday that the ongoing strike by Tumwater teachers is illegal, but he held off on ordering them back to work.
Teachers went on strike Saturday when their previous contract expired, delaying the start of school. While negotiations continue — on issues of teacher pay, class sizes and safety — the Tumwater School District took the teachers union and its president to court, arguing the strike is preventing the district from fulfilling its duty to educate students.
The district’s lawyer, Clifford Foster, described families scrambling for child care and children who would typically receive free or reduced lunch going without meals.
He said a court order is the district’s only option to respond to the strike, which he called a weapon to influence bargaining. “We don’t have the right to sue for damages. … We have no other place to go in terms of legal relief here.”
But the teachers’ lawyer argued that ordering them back to work would be premature, since Tumwater students have only missed three days of schools and some districts haven’t started the school year yet.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese said the state Supreme Court has ruled strikes by public employees are illegal, but that there was not sufficient evidence the strike was causing substantial harm.
He asked both sides to come back to court Wednesday to present more evidence before he decides whether to order the teachers back to work.
“The strike is illegal, and that’s not going to change between now and then,” Lanese said.
He noted the question before him — whether to grant an order to end the strike — does not affect contract talks and encouraged both sides to continue negotiating.
Teachers and their supporters packed the courtroom and an overflow courtroom and rallied outside, waving signs and chanting “You can’t spell team without T-E-A.” After the hearing, Tumwater Education Association President Tim Voie told the crowd Friday’s decision was a win.
“We can be comforted in the fact that the district tried to bully us back into the classroom, they tried to bully us off of the picket line, but they failed...,” he said.
Inside the courthouse, Superintendent John Bash told reporters the district looks forward to reaching a contract deal.
“The bottom line, we value teachers — we have fantastic teachers in Tumwater — and our main interest is in getting them back in the classroom with our kids as soon as possible,” Bash said.