This article was originally published at Labor Notes.
Paraeducators in Port Angeles, Washington, are on strike. In this year’s wave of teacher strikes, it’s the first one led by paraeducators.
Teachers have refused to cross their picket lines, shutting down the district’s schools Thursday and Friday.
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The 115 paradeucators in this small coastal city, just across the water from Canada, assist with everything from reading lessons to recess. Paraeducators play an essential role in today’s schools, offering extra attention and care to students who need it—especially those with disabilities.
Besides solidarity, another reason teachers were reluctant to cross the paras’ picket lines was “a lot of safety concerns,” said Eric Pickens, president of the Port Angeles Education Association. “They’re trained to help out our most fragile students, students with special needs.”
The strikers are pushing the school district to grant wage increases they say they’re owed from state money.
Paraeducators in the district currently make between $15.68 and $19.55 an hour, depending on seniority. Most work six hours or less a day. Many work second jobs—in homecare, retail, hairdressing, or at the local library.
Some are single mothers, and take home so little that their kids qualify for free and reduced lunches at the school, said Terri Rothweiler, a 24-year paraeducator and vice president of the Port Angeles Paraeducator Association. Both unions are affiliates of the Washington Education Association.
“We told our members last week: We either need to roll over and accept how they want to treat us, or stand up for ourselves,” Rothweiler said.
Union members had voted 87 to 4 to authorize a strike if no contract agreement was reached by Wednesday evening.
School officials initially planned to open schools during the strike—but changed their minds when the teachers union said it wouldn’t cross the picket line.
“The district wasn’t really taking them seriously because they just figured they’ll try to run schools without them,” said Pickens. The teachers’ vote, he said, “forced the district’s hand, and now they seem to be bargaining.”
Rothweiler said the district tried to recruit substitute paras to come into work, but union members called them and asked them not to cross the picket line.
Bottom of the Barrel
Low wages have long been a source of concern for the district’s paraeducators. The union is asking for a 22 percent increase.
So far the district is offering only 3.5 percent, below all other groups of workers. Maintenance workers and bus drivers got a 4.1 percent raise.
“Consistently the district keeps us on the bottom of the barrel, and we’ve been told, ‘That’s where we’re going to keep you,’” said Rothweiler.
The union says pareaducators are entitled to the extra money the state legislature set aside for educator salaries this year.
Contracts for teachers and support staff were opened statewide this year to bargain for $2 billion that the state legislature allotted specifically to salary increases. That money is a product of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which ruled that the state was not meeting its constitutional duty to provide ample funding for schools.
Port Angeles got a 39.8 percent increase in state funding thanks to the McCleary decision, and was granted $970,000 to raise salaries for classified staff. But the district, like many others throughout the state, has attempted to put the money toward other purposes. Fifteen Washington state school districts started the year on strike, as teachers battled to win significant raises.
Paraeducators in the neighboring Sequim school district settled a contract in October that will raise wages by 15.9 percent over two years, with the starting salary set at $18.43 in 2019-2020. WEA created a video to transmit the lessons of the Sequim victory to Port Angeles paras.
Paraeducators and teachers in Port Angeles spent the summer organizing together to demand that the district use the McCleary money to raise salaries. They spoke out at school board meetings and organized a big July rally.
“They were by our side during the summer, so that’s why we’re by their side now,” said Pickens, who is in his fifth year with the district.
The district’s opening offer included zero salary increases for teachers, even though it had received $2.3 million in McCleary money to put toward salaries for “certificated staff” such as teachers, nurses, and guidance counselors.
“They said, ‘We’ve looked at the average salary and we think you guys are all set,’” said Pickens, who won election as union president in April. “We were like, ‘What?’”
Negotiations stalled at a 3.1 percent increase until the July rally. Finally, the night before their scheduled strike vote in August, the teachers union reached an agreement with the district that increased funding for their salaries by 9.1 percent.
The paraeducators’ contract expired August 31 without a new deal in place.
Won’t Be Bullied
Two years ago, Rothweiler said, the district refused to budge on wages, and paraeducators worked without a contract all year.
They were fighting the district on their own then, without much support from the teachers union. This time it’s different.
“The paras have been fighting this battle for at least a few years. When you see another group like that getting bullied, you have to stand up and say that’s not acceptable,” Pickens said.
Rothweiler believes community support is strong. Last month, parents and union members packed a school board meeting, with turnout so high they flowed out door.
Once the strike began, Rothweiler and a co-worker went canvassing in the neighborhood where they teach with the message, “Sorry for the noise, we hope you’re supporting us.”
“Every house we went to,” she said, the response was, “Oh yeah, you have our support.”
To help families cope during the strike, the teachers’ union sent a donation to cover all-day childcare for 25 kids at a local swimming pool.
Striking is a legally grey area for Washington school employees—technically illegal, but with no penalties written into law. The Port Angeles school board has threatened to individually sue individual employees participating in the strike.
Negotiations continued Friday, while schools remained closed.