On Monday, March 13, the Seattle Educators Association (SEA) took a big step toward May 1 strike action in voting by an overwhelming majority in favor of a one-day strike at their Representative Assembly. The resolution will now require approval by the union’s full membership.
The vote was a response to more than a decade of unconstitutional underfunding of public education in Washington State. But it was also a part of a series of recent moves by Seattle unions preparing to take action on May Day against the vicious right-wing agenda of Donald Trump. In February, WFSE Local 304, representing workers at Seattle community colleges, passed a resolution supporting strike and protest action on May 1. The elected leadership of UAW 4121, representing graduate student workers at the University of Washington (UW), recently voted to hold a May 1 strike vote of its membership. The Martin Luther King County Labor Council passed a county-wide May Day resolution this week at its monthly delegate meeting at the Seattle Labor Temple.
Socialist Seattle City Councilmember, Kshama Sawant, who called for “100 Days of Resistance” from Trump’s inauguration leading up to May Day, is now calling for the city’s mayor, Ed Murray, to allow all city workers to take May 1 off without retaliation (Washington State law already allows all public employees to take 2 days off each year for reasons of conscience or religion).
All the developments around May 1 action in Seattle are important. But if the SEA membership approves the strike action, it will take things to another level. Because it would represent more than a symbolic resolution or call to action. It would mean 5,000 educators actually going on strike in a powerful defense of public education, and shutting down the Seattle school system for a day.
Educator Kit McCormick spoke about the mood at the SEA Representative Assembly: “What stood out to me is that people want to do something that will change the status quo. We have tried the same thing for years. We’ve been writing our legislators and we’ve been going to Olympia and it’s time to take a bigger step. People are excited about getting out there with a larger group and saying, ‘This will not stand!’”
The Washington State Supreme Court has repeatedly taken action against the State Legislature in Olympia for underfunding education in violation of the state constitution. In the Fall of 2015, Seattle educators went on strike during contract negotiations, demanding full funding for schools, racial equity teams, and cost of living wage increases. While the strike led to SEA winning a number of their demands and electrified working people across the city, public education remains grossly underfunded statewide. And now federally, education is under attack from the Trump administration.
“An injury to one is an injury to all,” said SEA teacher and Socialist Alternative member Justin Vinson. “We’re fed up. For years educators have been fighting to defend our schools and our students against illegal underfunding by the legislature, and now we have the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos setting their sights on major education cuts. But there is a larger principle at stake here as well, with Trump going after our immigrant sisters and brothers, women, Muslims and LGBTQ people. May 1st can be an important turning point by demonstrating that we can use our power as workers to shut down ‘business as usual’ and step up the resistance to Trump.”
May 1, or “May Day,” is historically a day of mass working class action and immigrant rights protests. With immigrants facing the worst brunt of Trump’s attacks and anti-union legislation coming down the pike, the need to return to May Day’s roots as a day of mass strike action has never been more relevant.
But there is nothing automatic about the upcoming vote by the full SEA membership. While the resolution passed with overwhelming approval, it did so in spite of the opposition of the union’s president and Executive Board. Executive Board members also increased the requirement for strike approval from the usual 50% threshold to a much higher 75%.
Winning the vote will require organizing. Members of Seattle Equality Educators, a left caucus within the union who led the way on the resolution, will help make the case within their schools for taking a stand on May 1. Parents, students and community members should weigh in as well, as all of us have a stake in taking action on these critical issues. Flyering and petitions in support of the educators could help move things in the direction of a successful vote.
SEA educators can take inspiration from what’s happening in California, where a coalition of SEIU United Service Workers West and workers center members (nearly 350,000 workers altogether!) are preparing to go on strike on May 1.
In Seattle, UAW’s resolution will also be going to a vote of its full membership in the coming weeks. If approved, the union’s 6,000 teaching and research assistants at the University of Washington will go on strike on May Day as well. Discussions have already begun, with UAW leading the way, about a campus-wide shutdown at this biggest university in the Northwest.
In Seattle and across the country, the mood is growing to fight back against Trump and big business, to defend education, other vital public services, and all those under attack. But it will require more than symbolic protest. We will need to stand together in solidarity and to take our power as working people into our own hands.
And that’s why what Seattle educators are doing is so important.