The Teachers Union's National Strike Strategy

Classes didn't start on the morning of Sept. 2, 2003, in Marysville, Wash., as scheduled. Nor did they start the next day … or the next.

Located approximately 40 miles north of Seattle, Marysville was the site of the longest teacher strike in Washington state history (search). Lasting 49 days and delaying the start of the academic calendar until Oct. 22, it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and forced students to remain in class until July 19, prompting many of them to go on strike themselves.

Relations between the district and the community were strained as factions formed on both sides and countless resources were either lost or squandered. Many parties were involved in the Marysville teachers' strike beyond the school board and the local union affiliate. Groups ranging from local parent associations that supported the work stoppage to the attorney general's office contributed to its development and perpetuation.

When the smoke finally cleared, a superintendent and three school board members were out of a job and the remaining two incumbents were under fire.

This unpleasant situation represents a model that is poised to be repeated in other states and local school districts across the country as more pressure is brought to bear upon public education and the dollars it spends. States such as Indiana, Oregon and Pennsylvania — all on the verge of their own crises — should be looking to Washington state and the essential lessons they can salvage from Marysville, because most of the uglier events of the Marysville strike were preventable.

Not surprisingly, teacher compensation was initially the core issue. Since 1987, teachers in Washington have been able to receive additional pay through supplemental contracts for time, responsibilities and incentives, known as TRI contracts (search). Districts were first allowed to make these settlements with teachers in addition to their primary basic education contracts in order to compensate them for work performed outside of the state-funded student instructional days, such as in-service staff development.

TRI pay was designed to be administered at the district level and was to be solely for the purpose of improving student achievement. The laws that allowed this provision further dictated that TRI contracts were not to exceed one year and were not in any way binding upon the state.

Problems began when the state teachers' union, the Washington Education Association (search), failed to secure cost of living increases in teacher salaries from the legislature. Vowing to do so at the local level, union officials ran into a roadblock: State law restricts the granting of across-the-board cost of living (COLA) increases (search) to the legislature. To circumvent this, the union utilized TRI contracts, which are subject to local bargaining.

The union proceeded to pressure local districts to grossly inflate TRI contracts to compensate for illegal cost of living increases and finally succeeded in Marysville. Since TRI pay is measured in hours rather than days, the school board had to elevate contracts to outlandish levels to provide for average cost of living increases over the entire year. They did, paying teachers with a Master's degree and more than 26 years of experience $112.70 an hour. This placed an unsustainable burden on the district and forced it to begin drawing on financial reserves. When resources eventually ran out, curriculum budgets were cut, nixing academic programs such as choir.

When the inevitable protest came from the community, the district went to the state legislature to refill its coffers. Instead, it received a reminder that the state is not bound by contracts districts make with teachers through TRI. With options and funds running out, the school board made a decision: They would refuse to renew the TRI contracts at the start of the next academic year and attempt to restore them to their original legislative intent.

What followed was the biggest firestorm Washington's educational system has ever seen. The union, seizing the opportunity, informed teachers that the school board's refusal to renew the expected contracts amounted to a demand that they work without pay. This immediately energized the teachers, and on Sept. 2, 2003 at 8:00 a.m., the bells of many of the schools in the Marysville district fell silent.

Unfortunately, the same national union strategy that led to such turmoil in Marysville is already beginning to play out across the nation. Teachers at Fort Wayne Community Schools (search ) in Indiana, where strikes are also illegal, have not actually violated the law by going on strike. However, the Fort Wayne Education Association (search) is following the national model of demanding more union control over TRI pay and pushing the district toward passage of an unsustainable budget.

According to union officials, this week's FWEA membership meeting may result in a "slowdown," which calls for teachers to halt all activities not included in their contracts.

The Rainier School District in Oregon (search) is facing a similar situation. To balance its budget, the district has closed or consolidated several schools and held off on major purchases, such as textbooks. Despite the obvious financial constraints the district now faces, teachers are threatening to strike unless their demands are met.

States in which teachers' strikes are legal, or (in the case of nine states) expressly permitted by law, are even more vulnerable. The Abington Heights School District in Pennsylvania (search) is now facing its third September strike date in three years. Teachers' strikes have become such a problem for the commonwealth that there is now talk in the legislature of changing the "right to strike" law — a move unheard of in the heavily unionized state. Pennsylvania state Sen. Robert Mellow (search ), the Democratic minority leader, introduced legislation this spring that would guarantee binding mediation and ban teacher strikes altogether.

An analysis of the events leading up to the Marysville strike yields some key lessons that the state legislatures and local school boards in Indiana, Oregon and Pennsylvania would do well to note. Most obvious is the fact that the entire situation could have been avoided if the school board had not granted unsustainable contracts to begin with. The members of the Marysville school board cornered themselves by conceding to the union. School districts nationwide must resist union demands that have already been rejected by the legislature.

Equally important is the legislature's role in protecting local school boards by using the state auditor's office to ensure that illegal contracts are not granted at the local level. Across-the-board cost of living salary increases are the rightful responsibility and prerogative of a state's legislature, and it must make certain that they remain so if it wishes to avoid such occurrences in its state.

Finally, having a strong attorney general is also vitally important. In Washington, 26 separate court decisions prior to the Marysville strike had ruled previous teacher strikes illegal. The failure of Washington's attorney general to enforce the law quickly enough cost the students and parents of Marysville a great deal.

Sadly, Washington state has not learned its lesson either. The stage is now being set in Washington for the situation to repeat itself. The issue of TRI contracts has gone unresolved statewide as the legislature has failed to clarify their intent to school districts. The union continues to look for ways, legal and illegal, to get across-the-board cost of living increases. And the attorney general has done nothing to see that strikes are prevented in the future.

Perhaps if Washington was to learn from its own mistakes, it would save itself a lot of trouble. In the meantime, however, the lessons of Marysville remain distressing though valid testaments to forewarn other states.

Bob Williams is a former Washington State legislator and the president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a public policy organization in Olympia, Washington, dedicated to the advancement of individual liberty. Mike Throgmorton is a student at Whitworth College and a research assistant at the Foundation. For more information, contact EFF at or call 360-965-3482.