By Matt McKnight
SEATTLE (Reuters) -Seattle teachers hit the picket lines on Wednesday on what would have been the first day of school this fall for tens of thousands of students after voting to strike over pay, staffing and mental health support.
The Seattle Teachers Association (SEA), a labor union representing more than 6,000 teachers, paraprofessionals and office workers in Washington state, on Tuesday said that 95% of its members who submitted a ballot voted to go on strike.
The work stoppage canceled the first day of school for 47,000 students in the district, the largest public school system in the state, as teachers formed picket lines at many of the system's 110 schools on Wednesday morning.
Outside of Rainier Beach High School on the city's South Side and down the street at South Shore K-8 elementary school, dozens of teachers wearing red T-shirts carried "Strike Now" signs while they chanted "Educators United Will Never Be Defeated" as motorists drove past honking their horns in support.
"Either we take action now to put solid programs in place that can serve students or we cave and then we are overwhelmed and can't educate," said Kathy Krikorian, a speech therapist at South Shore K-8.
The strike is the latest in a wave of work stoppages in school districts across the United States in recent years, with teachers demanding salary and benefit increases, beefed-up staffing and improved working conditions.
Seattle teachers are calling for an increase in pay, staffing ratios to be maintained or improved for special and multilingual education, and an increase in the number of counselors and social workers who work in the district.
Seattle Public Schools in a statement said it was optimistic that the bargaining teams will "come to a positive solution" for students and staff.
"The weight and responsibility of starting this year without delay is felt by both bargaining teams," Superintendent Brett Jones said in a video statement.
The district said it would serve meals for students at several schools and after-school activities will continue during the work stoppage.
(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Mark Porter)