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Duluth Strike On, Others Threatened in Minn.

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Picketing in the sub-zero temperatures of a Minnesota winter, teachers from the Duluth public schools last week continued a strike that began on Dec. 1, but they were hopeful that a mediation session Dec. 8 would produce some progress.

But in Springfield, Ill., the teachers and the school board concluded a 30-hour bargaining session with a settlement of the strike that began Nov. 17. Both sides agreed to a $561,000 wage package (including step and training increases) for the first year of the three-year contract for the 766 teachers. Increases for the following two years will be negotiated at "reopeners" sessions.

The Duluth strike is the first to occur in the district, and the first this year in Minnesota, where all teachers have two-year contracts that expire on June 30 of odd-numbered years. Although strikes are legal in the state, they must be preceded by periods of mediation and notification. That makes January, rather than September, "strike season.''

Contracts also remain unsettled in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and unions in both cities expected their members to authorize strikes if no further progress is made.

In Duluth, the state's sixth-largest district, schools have been closed since the beginning of the strike and the district's 1,600 other employees have been notified that they are laid off until the strike is resolved.

The 945 teachers have asked for salary increases of 5 percent for each year of the contract, according to James Robinson, a national representative of the American Federation of Teachers who is assisting the Duluth Federation of Teachers.

A spokesman for the school board said the board had made a "strike-prevention offer" of 4.39 percent for the first year of the contract and 4.31 percent for the second year, excluding fringe benefits. During mediation, the board had offered a total of 13 percent--including all benefits--over the two-year contract.

"The board has never denied having the money," Mr. Robinson said. ''They've indicated that it's a matter of priorities."

Also at issue, Mr. Robinson said, is the amount of severance pay that teachers receive on retirement. The teaching staff is relatively mature, and many will be retiring in the next several years, he noted, so that the amount of money involved could be substantial.

The teachers went on strike following eight months of negotiations, the last three with a state mediator. "I would hope that we could come to a settlement in a few days," if mediation is successful, Mr. Robinson said. "If the board does not show willingness to come together and show positive movement, the strike could continue well beyond Christmas."

Noted the district spokesman: "I think all the other issues would be resolved fairly easily once they came to an agreement on salary differences."

Minneapolis Vote

Members of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers were expected to vote last week to reject the school board's final offer and to authorize a strike, according to Gary Rogers, business agent for the union. The last strike in Minneapolis occurred in 1970.

The school board's offer, made on Nov. 10, would give teachers an average increase of $3,300 over the two-year contract, including scheduled raises. Excluding the raises, the increase would be $2,400 over two years--a figure that union officials say compares unfavorably to raises negotiated by surrounding school districts. "We have an offer that's somewhere in the neighborhood of two-thirds of what the others are settling for," Mr. Rogers said.

The school board, he said, is not placing as high a priority on teacher salaries as on other budget items. "When they were putting together the budget last spring, they were listening to many voices," Mr. Rogers said. "I think what happened is that they made a guess as to what it would take to settle contracts, then budgeted the rest of the money. It's turning out that they guessed too low."

Another issue in the negotiations is the board's proposal to change the school day for junior-high students from six to seven periods, requiring teachers to teach six out of seven instead of five out of six. The district is seeking the change because last year's restructuring of the schools, which placed 9th grade in high school, effectively eliminated electives for 7th- and 8th-grade students. Increasing the number of periods would permit students to take more subjects.

'More Courses'

"We're certainly in favor of giving kids a chance to take more courses," Mr. Rogers said, but he added that the teachers' student load would increase from about 155 daily to 175.

In St. Paul, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers and the school board were scheduled to meet with a mediator last week, according to Jerry Scribner, business representative for the union. The central issues are money and teacher preparation time. The school district has offered a $1,000-per-teacher increase for the first year of the contract; the union is seeking $2,000.

The union expected a "solid salary offer" last week and was hopeful of getting a "reasonable shot toward a settlement" with the mediator. "I wouldn't want to say it's our last chance, but it's probably our best chance," Mr. Scribner said.

In Chicago, officials with the Chicago Federation of Teachers have said they will strike again if the School Finance Authority rejects its agreement with the school board. The finance authority was created in 1980, when the district was insolvent, to oversee the budget.

Last week, however, the Chicago Board of Education approved the contract that had been negotiated following the district's October strike. The finance authority was scheduled to vote on it on Dec. 12.

A spokesman for the board said that board members were optimistic that the finance authority would approve the contract as well.

In Boston, the school committee has gone to court in an effort to prevent the teachers from proceeding with a one-day strike this week. The teachers are scheduled to vote on the proposed walkout on Dec. 14, which they are considering to protest the absence of progress in negotiations. The contract expired on Sept. 1.

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