[Update: Comment from Gov. Gregoire’s spokeswoman added shortly after initial publication.]

Washington State Gov. Christine Gregoire issued a statement Wednesday demanding that the parties involved in Tacoma’s five-day-old teacher strike come to Olympia if the day’s efforts by the teacher’s union and school administration to reach an agreement was unsuccessful.

In a tone not unlike a principal speaking to unruly children through the intercom, Gregoire’s statement set the expectation for a late afternoon session that would not end until headway could be made toward a resolution between the teachers union and school administrators:

“There is no question that the Tacoma teacher strike has continued for far too long – disrupting the lives of families and the 28,000 students who need to be in school. I directed, and both sides have agreed to return to the bargaining table this morning. If no deal is reached by 3 p.m. this afternoon, both the district and the union will report to my office and stay until their differences are reconciled and the school doors reopen.”

But Gregoire might have a heavy hammer to swing in her effort to break the strike, if she wants to use one. According to an opinion written by State Attorney General Rob McKenna in 2006, as public employees, teachers “do not have a legally protected right to strike.”

In an opinion written to address questions raised by State Rep. Toby Nixon, McKenna took the position that although specific remedies and penalties are not defined in state law, the Governor should be on solid ground to seek a court order to force an end to the strike. In the case that teachers refuse to obey a hypothetical court order, the Governor could ask the courts to levy punishment for contempt.

If the Governor desired to use the threat of monetary discomfort as a tool to get teachers back into their classrooms, she might look to New York State law for legal validation. New York’s Taylor Act not only makes public employees strikes illegal, but defines automatic fines for striking workers, to be taken directly from employee’s checks. From the Taylor Act: [Bold mine.]

Not earlier than thirty nor later than ninety days following the date of such determination, the chief fiscal officer of the government involved shall deduct from the compensation of each such public employee an amount equal to twice his daily rate of pay for each day or part thereof that it was determined that he had violated this subdivision

NW Daily Marker emailed Gregoire’s office and asked if the Governor concurs with the Attorney General’s opinion and if she would support fining striking workers. Spokeswoman Karina Shagren sent us this response:

No Washington statute has been enacted that says it is unlawful for teachers to strike and no precedential Washington court case has ever answered the question.   The 2006 Attorney General opinion recognizes these facts, and relies on common law principles that have been applied in other contexts but may or may not be applied in the context of teacher strikes.  We simply do not have a black and white answer.

Ending the strike through judicial orders and appeals will only leave bitterness and dissatisfaction.  That is why the governor has consistently been asking both sides to stay at the table and end the strike by reaching resolution—one that will satisfy the needs of the district while also ensuring teachers remain proud to report to the classroom everyday to provide students with the best possible learning opportunities.


[photo credit: photoscott]