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L.A. Teachers Authorize Strike, Debate Bilingual Bonuses

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The confrontation between the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers continues to escalate.

Results of a union vote released last week showed teachers overwhelmingly in favor of rejecting the district's latest contract offer and authorizing a strike.

Meanwhile, an internal union dispute over bilingual education has added a further complication to the volatile and increasingly bitter labor situation in the nation's second-largest school system.

More than 18,000 members of United Teachers of Los Angeles cast ballots on March 7. Of those, 16,254--or 89 percent--voted to reject the district's position and instruct their leadership to prepare for a strike later this school year.

Bargaining sessions between district and union officials are at a virtual impasse. Both sides have notified the state's public-employee-relations board that mediation has not been effective. They have asked the board to certify that negotia4tions are ready to move toward the final, "fact finding" step in the collective-bargaining process.

If no settlement is reached after that stage, the union is legally allowed to strike.

Union leaders plan to conduct another strike-authorization vote of members before calling a walkout.

Catherine M. Carey, director of communications for the union, predicted that a strike would occur sometime in early June, shortly before the end of the school year. "Teachers don't want to do that," she said, "but if they're forced into it, with this kind of a vote, I think we have the strength to do it."

Bilingual Referendum

The focus of the union's debate over bilingual education is a referendum that would support the withdrawal of salary bonuses given to the district's 4,000 bilingual teachers.

A petition drive calling for a vote on the issue was led by Learning English Advocacy Drive, a group of teachers who oppose the district's policy of teaching immigrant students basic subjects in their native language while they are learning English.

The ballot measure, to be sent to the 22,000 utla members in the next few weeks, opposes programs that place students of one language group in a selected school or segregate students in bilingual programs. It also includes provisions that would prohibit policies subjecting bilingual-education teachers to additional duties, certification requirements, or involuntary transfers.

Sally Peterson, president of lead, said last week that bilingual teachers should not receive any additional compensation because "all teachers are valuable in whatever specialty area they pursue."

She also cited a recent federal-court ruling in Berkeley, Calif., that upheld a program of primarily English instruction by teachers not "fully credentialed" in bilingual education for the district's limited-English-proficient pupils.

Union Leaders Opposed

But the u.t.l.a.'s board of directors and house of representatives have both voted to recommend that members reject the lead referendum.

Union officials said the change in policy would not only make it diffiel15lcult to provide bilingual education, but could also upset the already volatile contract negotiations.

Differentials for bilingual teachers are "the one thing we've agreed to at the table so far, and it would be bad faith to change our policy in midstream," said Helen Bernstein, the union's secondary vice president.

The u.t.l.a. for a number of years has supported the district's policy of providing a salary differential for bilingual teachers.

A new bilingual-education plan approved by the Los Angeles school board last spring would increase the pay differential from $2,000 to up to $5,000, based on teachers' credentials. It would also remove a requirement that bilingual-education teachers work two and a half extra hours a week.

"Ironically, it's the only major issue that has been agreed to at least in principle" in contract talks, said Ms. Carey.

Two years ago, u.t.l.a. members voiced their dissatisfaction with the district's policy of providing native-language instruction and their support for instruction provided predominantly in English with support from bilingual aides.

At that time, however, union officials maintained that two referenda supporting that position had passed largely because of a provision calling for the elimination of the district's "waiver" policy for bilingual-education teachers.

The policy, which has since been dropped, required teachers of limited-English-proficient students to learn a second language at their own expense within seven years. "That's more what they were voting for than the substance" of the bilingual program, Ms. Carey said.

But bilingual education has remained a controversial issue, and officials say the referendum on bonuses could jeopardize the union's position in contract talks.

"It's a very divisive issue at this point when we have to be unified," Ms. Carey warned. "This just isn't the time to bring all this up."

But Ms. Peterson said her group has no plans to withdraw its measure. "There's never a good time to do something as controversial as this," she said. "Our union seems to negotiate all year long."

According to Ms. Peterson, lead has 20,000 supporters statewide, "at least half" of whom are in the Los Angeles area.

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