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Unions Anticipate Fewer But Worse Strikes This Fall

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More teachers will report to work without contracts this fall than ever before, school and union officials say, but there will be fewer strikes this year than there have been in recent years.

Leaders of the teacher unions warn, however, that the strikes that do occur may be long and bitter. With the economy improving, they say, many union affiliates will attempt to gain back some of the wage and benefit increases that they were forced to concede during recent years of fiscal troubles.

Among the possible sites of strikes this year, according to officials across the country, are Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans.

More than 40,000 students in Michigan and about 17,000 students in Illinois last week missed the start of school because of strikes.

Eighteen of Michigan's colleges and school districts already have been on strike this year. Teachers and school officials in Detroit were still at odds in negotiations last week, according to union officials, and 16 of the Michigan strikes were still in progress.

Detroit school officials, who face a $40-million deficit for the year that ended June 30, have asked their teachers to accept a freeze in salaries and to pay a greater share of their health-insurance costs. The Detroit Federation of Teachers is seeking wage hikes and at least the status quo in health benefits.

But officials on both sides of the dispute expected to reach an agreement before teachers were scheduled to return to work this week. Teachers struck for three weeks last year.

Edward Doherty, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said he was not optimistic about reaching a settlement by the time school was scheduled to start this week. He called an offer made by the school committee last week an "insult to our professionalism."

The union is seeking a salary increase of 6 or 7 percent this year. The school committee was reported to have offered three hikes of 3 percent over the next three years.

Too Early For Assessment

Union officials around the country stressed last week that it was too early to make a complete assessment of the collective-bargaining situation. They said they would not know what districts could be hit by strikes until this week, when classes in most school districts are scheduled to start.

But leaders of the National Education Association (nea) and the American Federation of Teachers (aft) predicted that there would be fewer strikes this year than last year.

"My impression is that we should not see an increase in the number of strikes over what we had last year," said John E. Dunlop, manager of ne-gotiations for the nea "The strikes will be different in that they'll be over hard-core issues ... and may also be bitterer."

Mary H. Futrell, president of the nea, said there were 125 strikes by affiliates last year. An official of the American Federation of Teachers (aft) said there were 11 strikes of affiliates of that union.

Negotiations got off to a slow start in many states this year, Mr. Dunlop and others said, because school and union representatives did not know what kind of aid districts could expect to receive from the legislatures. Many legislative sessions lasted until July, when most school officials were away from the bargaining table.

Raoul Teilhet, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said negotiations were "stalled" until the state legislature and Gov. George Deukmejian acted in July to increase aid to local districts by 8 percent.

Negotiations also were stalled this summer in Pennsylvania, as officials waited to see how the state legislature would revise the school-aid formula, said Dorsey E. Enck, director of management services for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "Negotiations just recently started to pick up again," he said.

Added Martha Lee Zins, president of the Minnesota Education Association (mea), an nea affiliate: "There has been a conscious attempt not to settle too early."

Because of the stalled legislative action, Mr. Dunlop of the nea said he "would tend to agree" that more teachers than ever would return to work this fall without contracts.

For example, Minnesota union officials said, about five times as many districts had completed negotiations by this time two years ago. Teachers in 179 Michigan districts, 132 New Jersey districts, 120 Pennsylvania districts, and 50 Vermont districts were scheduled to report to work without contracts, officials in those states said.

Despite those developments, Mr. Dunlop and others predicted that there would be fewer strikes because of the generally improved state of the U.S. economy.

"Since 1967, the number of strikes has increased when inflation has been up. And now, inflation is down," he said.

The issues in the negotiations appear to be more straightforward this year than they have been in the last several years, officials said. Faced in recent years with a recession and a continuing decline in the size of the school-age population, teachers have fought to protect job security as well as wage increases.

This year, most local affiliates are focusing on mainly salaries and fringe benefits, according to leaders of unions on the national, state, and local levels.

That the issues are "simpler," according to teacher leaders, means that most districts should complete negotiations quickly. Most say that negotiations have been brisk since the end of the legislative sessions.

Few Strikes This Year

Mr. Teilhet of the California aft affiliate said he expected there would be few if any strikes in the state this year. But he added that many teachers might seek large salary increases this year because they have accepted pay freezes and pay cuts since the passage of the property-tax-limitation measure, Proposition 13. (See related story on page 7.)

Katie Keatts, director of communications for the Michigan Education Association, said teachers in the state are "looking for ... a way to get back some old benefits, the way the Chrysler workers did." Those demands could create protracted negotiations, she said.

About 20 percent of the districts with unsettled contracts this year worked without contracts last year, a factor that could make negotiations especially difficult this fall, Ms. Keatts said.

Changes in collective-bargaining laws in Illinois and Ohio could make negotiations in those states more difficult also, the Public Service Research Foundation of Vienna, Va., concluded in a report released last month.

At the very least, said Dale Robinson, director of collective bargaining for the Ohio Education Association, the change in laws will create "a hard bargaining situation." He said management officials would attempt to postpone the effects of many of the law's provisions by pushing for multi-year contracts. The law takes effect next April 1.

Officials said recent national studies on the schools, including the April report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, have had some impact on the negotiations. They added, however, that the major management issues raised by the reports would probably be discussed more frequently and in greater detail in the next several years' talks.

Citing reports of teachers leaving the profession because of low wages, the Minnesota Education Association has recommended that its affiliates seek significant wage increases.

"We're having a dialogue nationally now [because of the recent reports], and people are saying that we have to plow money into education if you're worried about the drain [of teachers] to other professions," said Ms. Zins of the mea

The mea, whose affiliates are negotiating two-year contracts, has recommended that by the 1984-85 school year all first-year teachers earn $19,000. The average wage is now $14,225 for first-year teachers with bachelor's degrees, an mea official said, and as low as $9,000 in some districts.

Gus Steinhilber, a collective-bargaining researcher for the National School Boards Association, said he had heard of several instances in which issues raised by the excellence commission were part of the contract talks.

The contract recently ratified by the nea affiliate in Minnetonka, Minn., he said, includes provisions for increasing the length of the school year, devising differential-pay schemes, and requiring teachers to confer more frequently with parents.

Teachers walked off the job in Granite City and Alton, Ill., late last month. Granite City school officials postponed indefinitely the start of school for the district's 9,500 students. At issue are salaries and class size.

Teachers also struck the Deep Wood Center for the Mentally Retarded in Mentor, Ohio, last week. About 140 teachers left the job last week in a dispute over school officials' requests for a reduction in fringe benefits.

Officials of three unions that represent 5,500 lay teachers at 318 Catholic schools in the New York City area said teachers could walk off the job this week if they fail to reach a settlement with the Archdiocese of New York and the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Center. The contract for the largest union, the Federation of Catholic Teachers, expired last week. That union represents 4,700 teachers at 300 schools. If a strike occurs, classes will be held with nuns and brothers in place of the lay teachers, a spokesman for the archdiocese said.

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