Tacoma, Washington teachers defy no-strike order

Sep 15, 2011, 2:26 p.m.

By Laura L. Myers

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Striking teachers in Tacoma, Washington, returned to picket lines on Thursday in defiance of a back-to-work order, forcing school officials to cancel classes for 28,000 students for a third straight day.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff had issued a temporary restraining order on Wednesday against the walkout by some 1,900 teachers in a contract dispute over seniority policies, class size and salaries.

The superintendent of Washington state's third largest district has characterized the strike, which began on Tuesday, as illegal.

The judge's order directed all employees represented by the Tacoma Education Association to immediately "report to work and to discharge their assigned employment responsibilities in accordance with the school calendar and individual employment contracts."

Union spokesman Rich Wood said on Thursday that the vast majority of teachers had decided individually to remain off the job despite the judge's order.

District officials said on Thursday that Tacoma's 57 public schools would be closed again "due to insufficient school staffing," and noted that a no-strike order was issued.

"We're extremely disappointed," district spokesman Dan Voepel told Reuters, adding that only a handful of teachers showed up at most schools on Thursday.

According to local media reports, some teachers cited what they called a legal loophole in the way the union leadership was named in the court order and because the judge crossed out a line referring to "all members of TEA."

The judge had also ordered both sides to continue bargaining in good faith, and a negotiating session was scheduled for Thursday afternoon. The judge further directed the parties back to court for a hearing on Friday to address compliance with his order.

Contract talks in Tacoma began May 31 but reached a stalemate last weekend. The teachers have been without a contract since September 1

The biggest obstacle to a settlement, the union says, are district demands to alter staffing policies so decisions on teacher reassignments between schools are based on performance evaluations and other criteria rather than on seniority.

The union also objects to proposed pay cuts and is at odds with the district over class sizes, which teachers want to reduce. The district said it cannot afford to do so.

The union said the district has amassed a surplus of $40 million, while the district said it will have to spend down its reserve funds by $15.4 million this year to avoid deeper cuts in teaching positions and student programs after being forced to eliminate about 100 job and close two elementary schools.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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