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Boston Sues Teachers' Union Over Threat To Strike

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The Boston School Committee decided last month to proceed with a lawsuit that labor lawyers say may be the first in the country to seek money damages from a union for threatening to strike.

The suit originated last winter during acrimonious disputes between the committee and the Boston Teachers Union over union contract provisions.

Upset over lack of progress in resolving the contract disagreements, the 6,200-member btu scheduled a walkout for Dec. 15.

The school committee countered by filing suit in Massachusetts Superior Court seeking an injunction against the scheduled strike and asking for money damages from the union under a provision of the state's collective-bargaining laws. The court declined to issue an injunction and the walkout did not occur, largely, according to a spokesman for the teachers, because union leaders on the eve of the strike recommended against it because agreement on the issues seemed near.

Up to $100,000 Sought

The school committee decided to proceed with its suit, however, seeking $50,000 to $100,000 in damages, according to Mary Jo Hollender, a lawyer for the committee.

The school committee claims the teachers' union violated a state statute prohibiting public employees from "inducing, encouraging or condoning" a strike, according to Ms. Hollender. She explained the money damages would cover costs incurred by the school committee as a consequence of having to draw up a contingency plan to cope with the3threatened teachers' strike.

Union efforts to have the case dismissed failed last spring. Meanwhile, the judge in the case asked the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission to determine whether the union committed an unfair labor practice by threatening to strike.

John Cochran, chief counsel for the state labor relations commission, said that if the commission decides to enter the case, it could be up to six months before a decision is made. "This would be the first time the issue has ever been addressed in Massachusetts," Mr. Cochran said.

Charge 'Ludicrous'

Edward Doherty, president of the btu, called the school committee's suit "ludicrous."

"I think it's a waste of the taxpayers' money," he said. "It certainly looks like some sort of reprisal to me."

But Ms. Hollender said, "It's very important that we determine whether or not a union can seek to exact more generous collective-3bargaining terms by threatening to strike. We are seeking to establish a principle that has not been decided before in Massachusetts--if a union is answerable in damages for threatening a strike. We don't think the fact that they didn't actually walk out should make a difference."

Lawyers for the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association said they were not aware of any other lawsuits filed against a union for merely threatening to strike.

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