Think About It: Category 5 labor negotiations

I write this nearly a week before the strike deadline set by the teachers of Sequim School District to meet my deadline for submission. The column will be published on the day we will know whether the teachers and district were able to resolve differences and reach agreement on a contract.

My sincere hope is that there is not a strike and if there is not, that this column will at least lend itself to bringing some clarity to the process and the issues; the latter being more difficult due to the inherent secrecy of sides in an adversarial setting.

During my career in healthcare administration, I have been at the table or behind the scenes of many labor disputes and negotiations. I’ve long forgotten the number of negotiations but will never forget the disruption and turmoil that accompany them.

Keeping with the news of the day, I can easily relate labor negotiations as a Category 5 event in labor and management. Those of you who have been involved know exactly what I mean.

We all know it’s coming, we prepare, we endure and then do damage control. It is what it is. It doesn’t matter who the people are or what the issues are, it’s the same process for all parties involved.

And why is that? Because it’s about survival – survival of a family unit, a profession, an institution. Because it’s about value – valuing who we are, what we do, our abilities, our responsibilities as a parent, doctor, nurse, teacher, administrator, governing board member.

Can’t get much closer to the bone than that.

The process

Anyone who regularly reads this column, knows I have a bias toward society’s role in assuring access to healthcare for all ages and education for children and young adults. I consider healthcare and education as essential services for the creation of thriving responsible adults, communities and societies.

I can easily relate to the tension between teachers and administration in education from my background in healthcare. Healthcare does have an advantage over education in that the multiplicity of services and revenue sources allows for more profitable services (surgeries) to subsidize services that lose money (delivering babies).

Education on the other hand has other revenue sources like renting space, student fees and lunch money, not exactly windfall sources of revenue. The primary source of revenue is tax revenues allocated by the State, something our State has struggled with for years.

Regardless, the mood and tenor of labor negotiations is the same. It’s like living through a hurricane of accusations, anger, mistrust, hurts, belligerence, all of which leaves participants frustrated, exhausted and depressed. Relationships can change forever; some friendships are made and some are lost. Meanwhile, just as nurses keep caring for patients, teachers keep teaching students. And, just as hospital CEOs keep all supports in place to keep the doors open, so do school Superintendents. The boards of each agonize over decisions presented to them that feel like being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The issues (?)

The issues fall in and out of the eye of this storm usually resting on the edge of the eye which seems to defy calming. As I said earlier, it is difficult to sort the issues due to the veil of secrecy.

I did have the opportunity to talk with a teacher representative who listed their issues as fair competitive pay, class sizes, more representation on instructional committees and the interpretation of the school budget. I think it is fair to say the primary issue is fair pay, at least on the teachers’ part.

I expected to say a lot more related to the issues, however, I can’t give you the District’s perspective of the issues or priorities. I didn’t see their issues in the Gazette but I can give you the District response as reported in the Sept. 13 Sequim Gazette.

(Gary Neal, Sequim School District superintendent) “I think it’s important everyone communicates and gets the correct data and information. Always ask us about any information; if there is something (someone) is not sure of, they have a good resource to confirm those things.”

I couldn’t agree more and I was certainly someone who was not sure of the issues and the facts. I sent eight questions to Neal and the Director of Finance, most to verify or not the teachers’ claim and one asking about the district’s position on what I assumed were financial constraints.

I was initially told it would take a week; to which I asked if any questions could be answered and was told I would receive some information the next day. Apparently, it wasn’t possible.

At this writing, I have not heard from the district.

I did, however receive a response from two legislative offices – Steve Tharinger and Kevin Van De Wege that were very instructive. One attachment was a very instructive outline of the final McCleary Bill that I passed along to my editor, the district and the teachers.

Valuing education

I can, though, assure you that this Category 5 negotiation will pass through and dissipate. There will be much more damage if we find ourselves in the throes of a teacher’s strike today, but that too, will end. If and when resolved, relationships will begin reconstruction and trust will be rebuilt.

Either way, it is us, the community, who has the greatest investment in our schools — public, private, or home. We are who ultimately entrusts teachers and school administrators with our kids and our future.

The reality is our nation does not value the work of teachers, at least not to the extent of our expectations of them and school administrators. Washington state was depressingly low in meeting its obligations to education which is, in part, what’s lead to the problem today. We have a school district that is “nickel and diming it” in its struggle to make ends meet and have any kind of a reserve.

The storm will pass if it hasn’t already and the sun will come out. We will mobilize our support and hopefully, the teachers will be and feel more valued, school administration will come out of its bunker and the school board will explain to us how we got to this miserable place. We all have something to learn.

Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at

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