Teachers in Ridgefield, Washington, are on strike. District negotiators and the teachers union met Tuesday to continue talks. And Ridgefield teachers aren’t alone.
Educators in Seattle went on strike earlier this month, then a resolution was just reached there, with classes resuming Wednesday. Teachers across the country in places like Columbus, Sacramento and Minneapolis have walked out this year too.
Nadra Nittle, an education reporter for The 19th News, joined OPB Morning Edition host Geoff Norcross Wednesday morning to discuss the evolving labor situation in schools across the Northwest, and beyond. Read on for a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, or push play to listen in:
Geoff Norcross: Nadra, good morning.
Nadra Nittle: Good morning, thanks for having me.
Norcross: Let’s start in Seattle. Students are back at school Wednesday morning after a multiday strike was lifted yesterday. Can you give us some background on what’s been going on there?
Nittle: A week ago Seattle teachers went on strike. They were concerned about class sizes and support for special education, multilingual education. They were also concerned about nurses; they wanted school nurses to have more relief. And also pay — they’re concerned that their pay is not enough to be able to afford housing and other expenses.
Norcross: You mentioned housing, the cost of living in Seattle is really high. Have inflation and cost of living played into the negotiations and the decision to strike?
Nittle: Definitely because teachers have contracts that last for a few years. During the pandemic, we’ve seen inflation skyrocket, so their salaries don’t necessarily reflect inflation levels going up. That was definitely a concern, and I also interviewed teachers who said that they cannot afford to live in the neighborhoods where they teach.
Norcross: Are we seeing that concern play out in other big cities?
Nittle: I think we are. I mean, when Minneapolis teachers went on strike in the spring, that was also a concern there. They had to take on second jobs or make other arrangements just to be able to continue, whether they were teaching paraprofessionals or had another role in the school, that they were really having to find creative solutions to make ends meet.
Norcross: You touched on the role that the pandemic has played in all this. Can you expand on that?
Nittle: Due to supply chain disruptions and other issues, we’ve seen inflation go up. We’ve seen homelessness increase across the board no matter what profession someone is in. But in terms of schools, the pandemic has worsened a teacher shortage that was really already brewing before 2020 and it’s just gotten worse during the pandemic. And that’s something that’s just put a lot of stress on educators as they have to do their own jobs and often cover for the teachers or the staff who aren’t there.
Norcross: So once kids got back to school from virtual learning, which they were doing for a couple of years there, behavioral problems began to surface. What kind of support do teachers say kids need now?
Nittle: Seattle teachers, and I think we’ve seen teachers in other cities as well, want more social-emotional support for teachers, because students are reporting depression, anxiety, some of them are also, acting out, getting more into physical fights with each other and showing other problem behaviors. And again, pre-pandemic, we saw an upward trend of some of these behavioral and emotional issues, but the pandemic seems to have worsened them.
Norcross: I gather from your reporting that there’s a phenomenon at work here and it’s called “pattern bargaining.” What is that?
Nittle: Yeah, so that’s when we see members of the union basically negotiate for — whether it’s pay raises or other benefits — they start that off in one place. So say, in Washington, the Kent School District went on strike first and then we saw Seattle teachers go on strike and then we saw the Ridgefield teachers go on strike.
Norcross: It’s like a wave.
Nittle: Yes, so we see a wave of people negotiating new contracts and bargaining for better benefits and work conditions.
Norcross: And what other districts appear to be teetering toward a strike right now?
Nittle: A professor I interviewed at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, pointed out that Los Angeles school teachers are in the middle of negotiating right now and that they have hit some snags in the negotiating process. Now, they went on strike in January 2019, so it’s unclear if they would be willing to go on a strike just a few years later. But that school district did come out with a report showing that teachers are stressed out that they’re not getting paid enough. And some of the other issues we’ve seen that Seattle teachers have raised.
Norcross: Nadra, thank you so much for this.
Nittle: Thank you for having me.