Lessons From The Longest Teacher Strike
THE strike hostages - the 9,000 students of the Mukilteo School District - are back where they belong today. At last.
They'll remain in class until two days before the Fourth of July as payment for the state's longest teacher strike. Christmas and spring breaks will be shortened.
There was no reason for this strike to last a month. It had more to do with teachers sharing school control than money. Decentralized decision-making is a sensible wave of the future. Not in Mukilteo. Yet.
For parents of the district, it has been a nightmarish September.
Working parents have had to find day-care alternatives - with no idea when school would start. For older students, it will be last out of the chute into next summer's job market. For seniors, post-graduation plans will have to be delayed.
These are bells that can't be unrung.
But there are lessons to be learned from this mulish 33-day standoff between the Mukilteo School District and the Mukilteo Education Association.
Parents are angry at both sides for the long shutdown of the district's 14 schools by 500 striking teachers. A move is afoot to recall members of the Mukilteo School Board.
The board and Superintendent James Shoemake provided a textbook example of how not to conduct good-faith contract negotiations.
Their gasoline-on-the-fire tactics were a gut-shot to the compromise that was needed.
Some prime examples:
-- A board decision to advertise for substitute teachers and open without the regulars. A failed plan.
-- Spending about $50,000 for ads to tell parents why the district was right and teachers were wrong.
-- Charging conspiracy - that the Washington Education Association was directing the strike.
-- Painting blue lines in front of all the schools, sending a ``theirs'' and ``our'' turf message to the strikers.
Instead of positive negotiations, the district was pushing polarization.
In the beginning, the teacher union's strike authorization vote was relatively soft - slightly less than 75 percent.
After the strike had dragged on, Shoemake insisted that the union leaders weren't speaking for the teachers. He wanted a vote on the district's contract offer. He got it - 94 percent rejection.
The hardened resolve was evident again in the 322-65 teacher vote to defy a court order to return to work, with $100-a-day fines hanging over each teacher's head. That vote - more than anything - prompted the district to move toward the compromise settlement.
Shoemake was accused of being a union-buster three years out of Joplin, Mo., a right-to-work state.
``Dr. Shoemake is being blamed for the strike, but he didn't lead us down the path,'' School Board President David Beste said. ``He had input, but the decisions were made by the board. We have the responsibility of protecting the people's interest.''
John Cahill, a key negotiator for the teachers, said Beste became a key figure in the final hours that led to a settlement. ``He turned into a very practical person,'' Cahill said.
Of all the issues on the table, a relatively cost-free one drove a huge philosophical wedge between teachers and the administration. That was the union's push for school-site councils to decide building procedures, budget allocations, attendance policies and other issues.
Beste said he was not opposed to the concept of the school-site councils, ``but control has to include more than the Mukilteo Education Association.''
In the end, the teachers gave that up to reach a compromise.
Rick Ogelsby says the issue of teacher empowerment is a reflection of changing attitudes - that younger workers don't find job security as paramount as working conditions that allow them to grow personally.
Ogelsby, executive director of the Seattle Education Association, assisted in the negotiations. He's learned a lot about sticky bargaining since Seattle's longest strike in 1985 - 26 days.
``Along with respect for teachers, this had to do with the integrity of the bargaining process,'' Ogelsby said. ``It was a question of do we have the right to negotiate?
``We're in an era of interest-based negotiations, where you jointly identify problems and work toward a solution. We submitted a 23-page questionnaire (to district management) asking what they didn't like about the proposals. They refused to answer.
``They (the Mukilteo School Board) took a moldy old strike manual from 1975 and followed it page by page. That doesn't work anymore.''
A lot of unions live in that same time warp.
All sorts of figures were tossed around during bargaining about the money gap between the parties - from $1.3 million to $2.3 million.
Beste said he didn't have a specific figure of how much money moved from strike to settlement. Ogelsby guessed it might be about $250,000 over the three years of the contract. Shoemake said that's close.
The lesson from Mukilteo is that quarter-million-dollar strikes are dumb strikes. They happen when people dig in their heels and are more concerned about winning than getting kids back in school.
Don Hannula's column appears Wednesday on The Times' editorial page.
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