Washington governor intervenes in teachers strike

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 21, 2011 7:58 PM

By Laura L. Myers

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Summoned to Washington state's capital on Wednesday, union leaders for 1,900 striking teachers from Tacoma huddled with school district officials in a last-ditch round of labor talks called for by the governor.

An earlier three-hour bargaining session broke off without a settlement at about 1 p.m. local time, two hours before a deadline set by Governor Christine Gregoire as the walkout stretched into its seventh day.

Abiding by the governor's demands, negotiators for the two sides then traveled to the state capital, Olympia, about 30 miles southwest of Tacoma, arriving shortly before 3 p.m. for further closed-door talks in her office, union and district officials said.

Classes have remained closed to the 28,700 students enrolled in the state's third-largest school district since Tacoma teachers launched their strike on September 13 in a labor dispute over staffing policies, class size and salaries.

A state judge ordered the teachers back to work last week, but union members have remained on strike in defiance of his injunction.

School officials presented the union with a new contract offer shortly before a marathon 14-hour bargaining session ended early Tuesday morning. The two sides resumed talks later that day with the union making counter-proposals, but negotiations reached a dead end again at about 11 p.m.

As teachers returned to picket lines on Wednesday morning, Gregoire demanded the parties renew their efforts to reach an agreement.

"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," Gregoire said in a statement.

Union spokesman Rich Wood said "no movement" was made during Wednesday morning's session.

The main obstacle to a settlement, the union says, has been district demands to alter staffing policies so that decisions on teacher reassignments between schools are based on criteria other than seniority, such as performance evaluations.

The union also objects to pay cuts the district sought, and the two sides were at odds over class sizes, which the teachers want to reduce. The district said it cannot afford to do so.

The union said the district has amassed a surplus of $40 million, while the district said it will have to spend down its reserve funds by $15.4 million this year to avoid deeper cuts in teaching positions and student programs after being forced to eliminate about 100 jobs and close two elementary schools.

In its proposal on Tuesday, the district offered to keep salaries at current levels rather than seeking cuts, district spokesman Dan Voelpel said.

The district also proposed establishing a joint panel of teachers and school officials to set new teacher evaluation standards that would be used in conjunction with seniority to make future staffing reassignments, he said.

Labor negotiations in Tacoma began on May 31, and the teachers have been without a contract since September 1.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)