Public employee strikes illegal in Washington

No penalties in place for such action

PORT ANGELES — According to Washington state law, public employees like teachers do not have a legally protected right to strike.

Yet they nonetheless continue to occur.

The Port Angeles Education Association — which includes teachers, counselors, nurses, occupational therapists and psychologists — called a strike starting this coming Tuesday after it failed to reach a tentative agreement for a new contract with the Port Angeles School District on Wednesday. Negotiations continue and if an agreement is reached and ratified by the membership before Tuesday then there will be no strike.

The law—RCW 41.56.120 — reads: “Right to strike not granted. Nothing contained in this chapter [on union collective bargaining] shall permit or grant any public employee the right to strike or refuse to perform his or her official duties.”

A formal opinion by the Washington State Office of the Attorney General in 2006 affirmed that strikes by public employees are illegal and courts consistently agree.

That public employee strikes persist in Washington state can attributed to two things, said Jason Mercier, director for government reform at the Washington Policy Center, a free-market think tank based in Seattle: the law is not self-executing and it establishes no punishment for public employees who do strike.

“The state does not automatically act when a teachers union strikes, so it’s up to the school district to file an injunction with the the court to get teachers to return to work,” Mercier said. “The judge can order teachers to go back to work, and if they violate the injunction they can be fined.”

Because there are no penalties to impose on striking teachers — or any other state or public employee who strikes — it is by disobeying a court order that they can be threatened with contempt in the form of a fine or imprisonment.

The Port Angeles School Board could vote to seek an injunction in Clallam County Superior Court to force striking PAEA members back to the classroom.

But such legal action can be risky, Mercier said.

“Teachers are very sympathetic,” he said.

School district communications spokesperson Carmen Geyer said that the possibility of filing an injunction against the PAEA and its leadership should the union strike had not been discussed.

While it is illegal for state employees like teachers to strike, under WAC 180-16-162 unions must notify districts at least calendar two days in advance of a work stoppage.

PAEA president John Henry said he did this when he informed the Port Angeles School District on Wednesday that the PAEA would strike Tuesday following the three-day Labor Day weekend if they could not reach an agreement before then.

“We certainly hope not to get to that point,” Henry said. “And if the district is willing to come to the table and bargaining in good faith, our team is ready.”

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Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached at Paula.Hunt@soundpublishing.com.

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