Portland teacher strike looms

The first strike in the history of Oregon’s largest school system has been authorized by Portland Public Schools teachers. February 20th is the date set for the walkout.

On Wednesday, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, nearly 3,000 Portland Association of Teachers members gathered behind closed doors and emerged after about an hour with a firm yes vote to walk out.

“We are sad but empowered,” said Rosa Parks Elementary teacher Stephanie Windham. “It was an uproar. We are united.”

However, the vote does not automatically trigger a walkout despite precise language they endorsed, “PAT shall call a legal strike”, sounding definitive. On Thursday, schools will open and  be fully staffed. Meanwhile, if continued negotiations do not yield a contract, Wednesday’s decision gives union negotiators permission to authorize a strike. On Sunday, PPS leaders and union representatives are scheduled to meet in another mediation session. The required 10 day notification of a strike and plan to date the walkout on February 20th will be submitted by Union leaders. Parents honoring picket lines and not sending their children to school if a strike occurs remains the hope of Union president Gwen Sullivan.

“We are hoping that … they’ll understand that we’re unified, and they’ll try to resolve this quickly,” said Michele Huffman, a second-grade teacher at Whitman Elementary in Southeast Portland.

School board co-chairman, Greg Belisle said he was “really disappointed” by the vote, but hoped a deal could be reached before a strike actually happens.

“I think we’ve said it’s really hard on our communities, and it’s unfortunate that PAT took this step,” he said. “I just know it’s a really stressful time, and our responsibility is, in part, to make sure that regardless of what happens, we honor our commitment to create a safe environment for kids.”

By upping the pressure to compromise, strike votes sometimes help labor and management come to a deal according to Lewis & Clark law professor Henry Drummonds. Students at several PPS high schools walked out of class Wednesday afternoon or held lunch-time gatherings to protest the protracted talks.

“I view these protests as putting a lot of pressure on the district and the union to come together and sit down at the negotiation table,” said Lincoln High senior Emma Hoffman, who organized a walkout of about 100 students at her Southwest Portland School. “We don’t want to see a strike. No one wants to see a strike.”

As reported by Nicole Dungca of The Oregonian, both sides are preparing for a walkout despite the bargaining teams still in talks. Keeping the doors open in the event of strike remains the hopes of district officials. However, they have refused to release detailed emergency plans. Nonetheless, recruitment of substitute teachers from other school systems by districts officials has started.

Nevertheless, “picket captain” training scheduling by union leaders has started. And this week, accusing PPS leaders of pressuring their own subs to cross the picket line, they filed an unfair labor practice complaint. It is the right of those teachers to refuse available work in a strike.