Prospects Appear Dim for Timely Settlements In 3 Major Cities
Three of the nation's largest school systems, which together enroll nearly one million students and employ almost 50,000 teachers, are among those with unsigned contracts.
In Detroit, a shortfall in revenues has delayed a settlement. And in Chicago and Philadelphia, two of the districts that are most likely to strike this fall, the collective-bargaining problems are compounded by a host of pre-existing difficulties: byzantine political involvements, warring factions, and historically troubled relationships between the various parties.
In Chicago, the prospects are dim for a successful settlement before the Sept. 7 opening of school, according to officials at the Chicago Teachers' Union (ctu). "It is very possible that there could be a very lengthy strike," said Chuck Burdeen, director of communications for the 28,000-member organization.
Initially, the district faced a $38-million deficit; to reduce it, officials proposed that the teachers accept an 11-percent salary cut and a 25-percent cut in medical benefits. The union rejected the proposal earlier this summer.
At that stage, however, both parties anticipated the successful enactment of a "pension pick-up bill," which was based on a clause negotiated last year. The pension tax instituted by the bill would provide an additional $57 million, which would be used to pay an additional 7 percent of the teachers' pension costs.
Enacted earlier this year by the legislature with the support of Chicago's mayor, Jane M. Byrne, the bill required only Gov. James Thompson's signature.
But on Aug. 12, Mayor Byrne announced she was withdrawing her support for the tax. In the context of state and local politics, her withdrawal cast doubt on whether Governor Thompson would sign the bill. No one is quite sure when the situation will be resolved.
Without the bill, the district would have to come up with the $57 million by other means. Mayor Byrne has proposed cutting 3,300 positions--2,000 teachers and 1,300 aides. The union finds this alternative unacceptable, Mr. Burdeen said.
Union officials view the mayor's announcement as a major impediment in the negotiations progress; the an-nouncement, said Robert M. Healey, ctu president, "seriously imperils the opening of schools."
The School District of Philadelphia may also face a strike this fall--the fourth in five years--if the school board and the teachers fail to resolve several major issues. The situation is a continuation of last year's problems, which culminated in a long and acrimonious strike; the district needs an additional $40 million to meet its budget even if the teachers receive no raise. Currently, negotiators are working on the same contract that was negotiated in 1980.
Negotiations reached an impasse in early August and a fact-finder was called in. But last week both sides rejected his recommendations, which included a 15-percent raise for teachers, given over a three-year contract.
The district rejected the report for two reasons, according to a spokesman for the board. First, he said, "It was just too expensive." To meet the recommendations, the district would need an additional $193-million. District officials also thought the recommendations would not have given school officials "enough management prerogative" to run the district, the spokesman said.
The two parties are negotiating other issues as well; class size, teacher-preparation time, benefits, layoffs, and other key factors in the contract are also being discussed, the district spokesman said.
It is still too early to tell whether the schools will open as scheduled on Sept. 7, he said. But earlier this summer, a vote of the union membership authorized a strike.
The teachers' contract in Detroit also remains unsettled, although as of last week, the prospects for resuming negotiations looked good, according to John M. Elliott, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.
Earlier this month, the school board filed for a finding of fact with the Michigan employee-relations commission, saying that the negotiations had reached an impasse. The teachers, however, did not agree: "We felt that progress was being made at the table," said Mr. Elliott.
As of last week, he said, they were hopeful that the board's request had been turned down by the commission. "A strike is something that I feel we'd have to be forced into," he said.--sw