Judge Bars Calif. Union From Striking
In an unprecedented ruling for California, a superior-court judge has issued a temporary restraining order barring a teachers' union from continuing a strike it has conducted intermittently for the past five months against the Compton Unified School District.
The March 17 order by Judge Ricardo A. Torres is the first in the state to bar a strike by a teachers' union following the completion of state-required "impasse'' proceedings, which include third-party mediation and fact-finding, union officials said last week.
The ruling is based on a preliminary opinion by the state's Public Employment Relations Board declaring the Compton strike an unfair pressure tactic.
In seeking the court order, the labor board essentially argued that the recurring one-day walkouts were so disruptive to the district's educational process that they constituted a violation of the state's educational-employment-relations act, according to Jeffery Sloan, general counsel for the board.
In essence, he said, the board contends that the legislature has not given teachers the right to strike "when such a strike would disrupt students' guaranteed statutory and constitutional right to an education.''
Teachers in Compton, who have been working without a contract since the beginning of the school year, have staged 16 walkouts since November, when negotiations between the district and the 1,200-member Compton Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, reached an impasse, mainly because of a disagreement over pay increases.
The employment-relations board, which oversees labor disputes involving public-school teachers and state employees, early last month asked Judge Torres to halt the strike in the 28,000-student district until it issues a final opinion on the matter.
Officials of the teachers' union said they were worried that the board's ruling in the Compton case would provide a precedent for arguing that all strikes by teachers in the state are illegal.
They contended, however, that several decisions by the state's Supreme Court have protected teachers' right to strike after they have complied with mediation and fact-finding requirements.
"We completed the impasse procedures, and it's always been our understanding that after those procedures are exhausted that teachers have the right to strike,'' said Rosalind D. Wolf, a lawyer for the California Teachers Association who is representing the Compton teachers in court.
The teachers, whose pay scale is the lowest among the 43 school systems in Los Angeles County, have demanded a 7 percent increase this year and in each of the next two years.
The district has offered them a 5 percent raise this year and a 1 percent bonus; a 2 percent increase next year with a 1 percent bonus; and a 3 percent increase the following year.
"If we accept something of that nature, we will be even further behind at the end of three years,'' Wiley Jones, executive director of the union local, argued.
But Ted D. Kimbrough, Compton's superintendent of schools, said, "The district just does not have sufficient resources to meet the union's demands.''
After extended negotiations resulted in a deadlock over the salary issue, both parties agreed to seek the help of the employment-relations board, which assigned a mediator, and eventually a fact-finder, to help in the negotiations. But those efforts failed, and the teachers began the walkouts.
In February, the district sought additional help from the labor board, the superintendent said, because the strike "had really impaired our instructional program.''
The "rolling'' nature of the job action had resulted in the loss of many instructional hours beyond those lost during the actual walkouts, Mr. Kimbrough maintained.
"We took the position that a strike is not legal if it impairs the public good,'' he said. "It is unfortunate that we had to do this, but our first responsibility is to provide an education for our children.''
When the district first asked the labor board to rule the job action illegal, the board did not act, because, after an initial investigation, two of four members voted against the district's request for injunctive relief.
Early last month, however, one of the two opponents of the district's request resigned, and the board subsequently voted 2 to 1 to seek an end to the strike.
"It is hard to tell what [the board] means by this decision,'' Ms. Wolf said. "We don't know if they will now find that every teacher strike in the state is disruptive and, therefore, seek to enjoin them, or whether they will find that only some strikes are disruptive.''
Judge Torres is scheduled to hold a hearing on the issues next Monday, after which he will decide whether to dissolve his restraining order or to issue a preliminary injuction.
Such an injunction would prohibit any further strike activity by the union until the labor board holds hearings and issues its final ruling.
That process could take up to two years, Mr. Sloan said.
The union has vowed to the challenge any injunction and the board's ruling on the broader strike issue in the state court of appeals.