NINE MONTHS HAVE passed since the Washington Teachers' Union went on strike, in effect closing the city's public schools. And nine months have passed since the teachers' union violated a temporary restraining order against continuing to strike issued by Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler. The union's above-the-law decision to ignore the judge's order resulted in a contempt-of-court citation against the union, its president, William Simons, and members of the union's executive board. That contempt citation included fines that amounted to $343,350 at the end of the strike. To this day the fines have not been collected.
The last word from Judge Kessler on payment of the fines came on Oct. 1. She asked both sides in the dispute (the union, and school Superintendent Vincent E. Reed along with five school board members) to submit suggestions of how much the union should pay, how and when it should pay and what the money from the fines should be used for. The deadline for those submissions was Oct. 22.
But neither before nor after that October request has the judge explained why she took so long to assess the fines against the union. Politics and long-term negotiations between the teachers' union and the school board are thought by some to have contributed to the delay. According to one line of thought, the judge did not want her fines to affect the contract talks between the union and the board, and those talks did not result in a contract settlement until September.
Judge Kessler herself refuses to comment on the reasons for her delay. In the absence of any explanation, it appears that the judge has been negligent in allowing the union to not pay its fine (or any smaller fine) for violating the court order. The union, after all, committed its acts with full knowledge of their consequences: in 1972, after similarly violating a court order, the union was fined $50,000; and in March, when Judge Kessler issued the contempt citation, she noted that the fines were coercive, meant to cause the union to comply with the court order -- not to punish the union. Accordingly, she said the union would be fined only for days it remained on strike after the contempt citation, not retroactively to the beginning of the strike. The judge has been kind and understanding toward the union. But her kindness now borders on weakness. And it opens the door to a cavalier disregard for this city's courts.
This delay is an invitation to any union to ignore the local courts in strike situations. In effect, it is saying that the courts are all talk and no action. Neither a contract negotiation nor a school board election is sufficient reason for not collecting the fines from the union. Even if either was, both reasons no longer exist. The fines should be assessed immediately.
Superintendent Reed suggests that the fines be used to pay for schoolchildren's trips to local museums and theaters, instead of for a scholarship fund as was done with fines from the 1972 strike. That seems a fine a idea, one that more equally spreads the benefit of the money to all the schoolchildren who were pushed aside in the strike. But whatever use the money is put to, now is the time to collect it.