How the Seattle Teachers’ Union Got Tough and Got Popular

The Seattle teachers’ strike shifted the public image of teachers’ unions—both in Seattle and across the country.

Three years ago, Jonathan Knapp took the helm of a Seattle Education Association that had taken its share of defeats. Teachers were dissatisfied with the contract they’d negotiated in 2010; voters approved the creation of charter schools in 2013 (seen by some as a rebuke of public schools); and ongoing conflicts over student testing were fraying everyone’s patience.

The picture is much different now. Two weeks ago, with teachers on strike for the first time since 1985, SEA and the Seattle School District agreed on a contract that not only sees pay increases across the board but makes major changes to everything from recess to teacher evaluations. We asked Knapp, who is leaving his post at the end of the school year after serving his second two-year term, how they did it.

SW: This was the first time the Seattle Education Association went on strike over contract issues in 30 years. Why now?

Knapp: Teachers were not just waiting to strike. We were ready to approve a contract on [August] 24th. We were ready to approve a contract on [September] third. But having raised the expectations and set some high goals, it was clear that members were not going to accept just anything.

I think the real answer is that we’ve been building our membership engagement and our power here very self-consciously in the past three years since I’ve been president. And, sure, things happen in a certain way. You’ve got severe underfunding of public education at the state level. You’ve got the region coming out of recession. Seattle is booming right now—more than any other city in the country, perhaps. And our members are determined not to be left behind.

But it had a lot to do with us being ready to be in a position to do something like this. Three years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago, I don’t think SEA was ready to do that.

Was there a specific moment or event that turned the tide for the union? A new era of solidarity, if you will?

Two springs ago—in the budget season going into last year—the district was proposing a bunch of budget cuts, and proposing to lay people off. And we had done some budget analysis, tracking district spending, what their trends had been over the past five or six years. They always have about 20 or 25 million dollars left over at the end of the year. They always plan for some reserves, a responsible amount, and they always have twice that. Every year.

So we organized against that. In the budget process, each school gets its allocation from the district and then has to approve a budget. We [told the schools], “Do the best you can with the money you’ve got, create a budget, and then vote it down. Because we’re not going to sanction this layoff of our office staff.”

At a halfway point in the process, when about 50 schools had said no, we got an invitation to come up to the district office. And the head of Teaching & Learning, who was chairing the meeting, said, “What’s going on here? We know that a lot of the elementary schools are fine with their budgets. They’re just voting ‘No’ out of solidarity.” And I just sat back and said, “Yeah, that’s exactly right.”

A lot of the issues that came up during the 2015 bargaining process were student-focused, such as recess, equity teams, and standardized testing. It wasn’t just about teacher pay. Was that new? Was that strategic?

Recess, equity teams, limits on testing—all of that is really important. That was getting a lot of airplay, and rightfully so. But those weren’t the only issues. There were a lot of things in this contract that we went after. In [public-sector] bargaining, there are mandatory subjects of bargaining: wages, benefits, and working conditions. But there’s nothing that says you can’t try to bargain things that are non-mandatory subjects of bargaining. You just have to get the other side to agree.

The first time we put the recess proposal on the table, you could just see it in their eyes. Like, “Yeah, right. Recess. Now let’s get down to business.” They totally expected that to just go away. And we knew that wasn’t going to go away. Once we set a strike deadline and they saw that we were going to go on strike if they didn’t get their shit together, they agreed to recess. They must have finally said, “Holy crap, this is gonna be the Great Recess Strike of 2015 if we don’t get this off the table!” Like, “The school district goes to the mat against recess for kids”? That is not a winning proposition.

Historically, teachers’ unions have been seen by some critics as a way to “protect bad teachers.” What do you say to that?

For years, that was the narrative across the country. “Unions just protect bad teachers. We’ve got to get these bad teachers out of here.” I think we’ve successfully changed that narrative.

When I became president, I wanted to challenge the notion immediately that teachers unions don’t care about teacher quality, so I started two different initiatives: the Seattle Teacher Residency, which is a different pathway to certification for teachers and our own teacher pipeline, and a support program for National Board Certification, the most rigorous, post-initial-certification professional development you can do. Now members see the union as the locus of their professional aspirations. But it also takes the issue of teacher quality off the table for the reformers. You can’t beat us over the head with this any more—we are leading on teacher quality. Washington state actually has the highest percentage of National Board-certified teachers in the country. And Seattle leads the state.

Ten or 15 years ago, you had school board candidates saying, publicly, “The unions are the problem. We’ve got to get them in line with what we need.” That’s all shifted. That’s not the sentiment out there now. Now the sentiment is “Seattle has great teachers and we want to support them.”

Sara Bernard writes about environment and education for Seattle Weekly. She can be reached at or 206-467-4370. Follow her on Twitter at @saralacy.

This interview has been edited for length.

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