Federal Way teachers made history in 1974

by Chris Green

From August 29 to September 17, 1974, teachers in Federal Way were on strike. It was the first public school teacher’s strike in the history of King County.

FWHIST-teachersstrike2Public school teachers in Washington state had only been granted the right to organize unions for the purpose of negotiating better salaries and other working conditions in 1965, when the Washington State Legislature passed the Public Negotiations Act, which required local school boards to negotiate with teachers over conditions of employment. The act did not specify a right to strike on the part of teachers; however, advocates of teachers unions claimed that the right was implied in the legislation since the right to bargain over working conditions was useless without the right to strike.

Meanwhile, many other persons, particularly in the judiciary, believed that teacher strikes were illegal in spite of the act. In the early 1970s, many Washington state teachers believed that local school boards were not interested in serious negotiations.

By 1973, most Federal Way teachers had become members of the Federal Way Education Association, an affiliate at the national level of the National Education Association. In 1973, many Federal Way Education Association members began to feel that the Federal Way school board would only begin to seriously negotiate if more aggressive action were taken.

In the summer of that year, the school board adjourned two of its meetings, claiming that the association members disrupted them. Later in the year, the association placed itself at the forefront of the movement to recall three of the five school board members who, among other qualities disliked by community members, were opposed to the association.

The recall election in the fall of 1973 resulted in the removal of two of the three targeted board members — including board president John Bocek — while another member, Vera Fredrickson, escaped defeat by only 15 votes. Although the recall election removed two anti-Federal Way Education Association members from the board, relations between district officials and the association only got worse.

Negotiations commenced at the beginning of 1974 for a new contract to begin the following school year; however, they became increasingly bitter and stalemated. The school board used a recent ruling by Washington State Attorney General Slade Gorton — upheld by the state Supreme Court — as justification to refuse to negotiate with the association on matters that did not relate to financial compensation.

The association, on the other hand, demanded negotiations on such issues as teacher school assignment, teacher transfer between schools, working hours, class sizes and teaching hours. As negotiations continued, the school board compromised, agreeing to negotiate some, though not all, of these subjects. However, the association was dissatisfied.

Another association grievance revolved around Federal Way school Superintendent George Cochrane. Appointed to his post in May 1972, the association detested the superintendent. They saw him as an ally of the board’s anti-association members.

They attacked him for introducing the “open concept” classroom into Federal Way schools, whereby several teachers were required to teach as many as 60-70 children in one classroom. They also blamed him for wasteful spending on phonics reading materials that were never used.

The association also demanded a 10-and-a-half percent increase in teacher salaries, claiming that the district had more than enough money to fund the increase. In response, the school board offered less than a 5 percent raise and claimed that the school district was out of money to fund greater salary increases for teachers as well as another association demand, the reduction of class sizes.

In the news, board president Rol Malan pointed to the rejection by Federal Way voters of school funding levies in April and July of 1974 as proof that the district was out of funds. He also cited Federal Way’s low property tax revenue, along with the inflation then gripping the United States, as proof of the district’s financial hardship.

Malan agreed with the claim that Federal Way teachers were greatly underpaid but claimed there was nothing the board could do about it. He implied that the best thing teachers could do was to be good soldiers and continue providing education to Federal Way’s children until money for more substantial salary increases could be found.

Federal Way teachers launched their strike on August 29, 1974, the day they were required to report to their jobs in preparation for the September 3 first day of school. Writing in the Federal Way News, board president Rol Malan denounced the strike as illegal, “disgraceful and an outrage” and an “insurrection” against Federal Way taxpayers who funded teacher salaries.

A week after the strike began, Jim Shahan, managing editor of the Federal Way News, predicted the strike would not last long. He wrote that Federal Way teachers were “the lowest paid of any in the area and consequently live from payday to payday.”

He suggested that if the school district used substitute teachers to try to break the strike (as they eventually did), the association would surrender as few of its members had the financial resources to hold out for long. Shahan was wrong. In spite of the use of strikebreakers, the association was able to win the strike and gain substantial concessions.

Chris Green is a member of the Historical Society of Federal Way. This story originally appeared in the August 25 online edition of the Federal Way News.

Posted on 9/1/2015