Wildcat Strike Spreads in Mississippi; 74,000 Pupils Out of School
About 74,000 Mississippi students had an unexpected holiday last week, after teachers in 20 districts defied a court order and went on strike.
The wildcat strike is the first by public employees in the state's history and involves both union and nonunion members.
Teachers in another 60 districts were prepared to strike beginning this week if the court order was lifted, according to George C. Brown, a spokesman for the Mississippi Association of Educators, the state's largest teachers' union.
The mae had asked its members to participate in a statewide strike beginning the week of Feb. 25 to protest the refusal of Gov. William A. Allain and the legislature to support a $7,000 pay raise.
But on Feb. 23, Judge Paul G. Alexander of Hinds County Chancery Court issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting any job action by teachers until March 4. The judge first issued the order on Feb. 22 to prevent a strike in the Jackson Municipal School District. But he broadened the order the following day at the request of Attorney General Edwin L. Pittman.
More Strikers Expected
The day after the court order, the 13,000-member mae, an affiliate of the National Education Association, called on its members to obey the injunction while legislators negotiate a pay raise. The Mississippi Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, also urged its members not to strike while the court order was in effect.
But teachers in at least six more local districts were expected to strike before the end of last week. About 4,000 of the state's 28,000 teachers were on strike as of Thursday, according to Mr. Brown.
"I have never seen teachers as aggressive and as angry," Herman W. Coleman, interim executive director of the mae, said in an interview last week. The breaking point, he said, came when the legislature voted itself a pay increase and an improved pension program, "and some-how couldn't do an adequate job in compensating teachers."
Mississippi's teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation, with an average salary of $15,971, according to Mr. Brown. Beginning teachers start at $11,400, said Thomas H. Saterfiel, deputy state superintendent of public education.
The last time the legislature granted teachers a pay raise was in 1982, when the state passed its Education Reform Act. By moving to a neighboring state, a Mississippi teacher could earn between $2,000 and $5,000 more per year, Mr. Saterfiel said.
The teachers' union initially had demanded a $3,500 raise for each of the next two years to bring teachers' salaries in Mississippi up to the Southeastern average. The Senate has passed a bill that would provide a $2,150 raise next year and at least a $1,000 raise for each of the two years after that, plus a health-insurance program partially paid with state and local funds.
Late last week, the House passed a bill by a vote of 113-5 that would provide a $2,500 pay raise next year in addition to a health-insurance package. The House bill proposes funding the salary increase with a 6-percent sales tax on "professional services," including those rendered by doctors and lawyers.
An amendment to the House bill would authorize the state board of education to set teachers' salaries in the future. According to the amendment, the board's salary decisions would automatically take effect unless the legislature intervened.
Mr. Brown said the legislators' proposals are still inadequate. The union is seeking a two- or three-year package that would exceed the proposed pay increases, he said.
Governor Allain has contended that the state cannot afford to raise teachers' salaries by more than $1,500 next year. He has repeatedly objected to raising taxes to finance a salary increase.
On Feb. 22, the Mississippi Board of Education held an unexpected6press conference to warn teachers about the possible repercussions of a statewide strike. A law now on the books regarding "abandonment of employment" by state workers might allow districts to fire teachers who walk off their jobs, the board warned.
State Superintendent of Public Education Richard A. Boyd last week asked the Attorney General to interpret how that statute would apply to teachers. The Attorney General has said that he will not ask police to jail striking teachers.
According to Mr. Brown, there is also some doubt about whether the judge's court order prohibits strike action by individual teachers, as opposed to union-organized strikes.
Mr. Coleman said the union would continue to work toward alegislative solution to raise teachers' salaries, but if that fails, he warned, more teachers might strike as soon as the court order is lifted.
The judge had scheduled a hearing on the court order for 10 A.M. on March 4. The Attorney General had stated that he would not seek an extension of the court order, according to Jack Lynch, a spokesman for the state department of education.