L.A. Bilingual Aides Walk Out of Schools In Contract Dispute
Hundreds of teacher assistants in Los Angeles, most of them bilingual aides considered vital to communications with language-minority students in the city's classrooms, walked out of scores of schools last week after the district rejected contract demands by their recently established union.
Bilingual-education experts described the strike, which is being staged as a series of walkouts that began Nov. 28, as the first in the nation on behalf of bilingual teacher assistants.
Representatives of both the union and the school district said last week that the strike centers on differences related to work hours, job security, and health benefits.
The district says budget difficulties make it impossible to offer more concessions. The union argues that the district should make certain basic commitments to ensure the aides' job security and to elevate the status of their jobs.
As of late last week, union and district officials said, little progress had been made in resolving their differences.
Because all classes are still being held, observers said it was difficult to gauge the impact of the strike. The question, they noted, is whether the absence of the teacher assistants is impairing classroom communications with limited-English-proficient children.
Officials of the teacher assistants' union said about 1,500 of its 10,000 members were on strike at 117 of the district's 648 schools last week. The strike is being staged as a series of "rolling" walkouts intended to disrupt classes at a different set of schools each week.
But Diana Munatones, a spokeswoman for the district, maintained that fewer than 300 teacher assistants had failed to report to work on any given day and that the strike was having "a very minimal effect on the educational process."
A no-strike clause in their contract prohibits teachers in Los Angeles, who belong to a separate union and have their own contract, from leaving their classrooms to show support for the assistants.
Officials of state and national bilingual-education organizations predicted that the Los Angeles strike could, if successful, spark similar actions by bilingual teaching assistants elsewhere.
They note that the ranks of bilingual-education aides have grown considerably in recent years as districts have scrambled to cope with rapidly growing enrollments of language-minority students and a shortage of teachers certified to teach them.
"I expect we are likely to see increased restlessness by bilingual teaching assistants," said James J. Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.
"They know what critical roles they play," he added, "but they seem to have the fewest benefits, the fewest rights, and the lowest pay of most school employees."
The Los Angeles teacher assistants organized in January as Local 99 of the Service Employees International Union, an affiliate of the A.F.L-C.I.O., and began contract talks in March.
About 70 percent of the local's members are bilingual Latinos, and most of the assistants work in bilingual and remedial programs, helping the approximately 1,500 state-certified bilingual teachers cope with the more than 200,000 LEP students in the district.
John Tanner, staff director of Local 99, said the union accepts that the assistants earn only $8 to $10 an hour.
But "the working conditions that the district requires the t.a.'s to work under really can't be characterized as anything other than exploitative," he asserted.
On one hand, Mr. Tanner said, the teacher assistants are required to be enrolled in college as a condition of their continued employment.
But, on the other, he said, they receive no sick leave, no paid holiday or vacation pay, and no commitment on the number of hours worked.
After contract talks began in March, Mr. Tanner said, the district cut from six to three the number of hours that 2,000 teacher assistants work each day. The result, he said, was that more than half of the affected assistants quit their jobs.
"Our position," Mr. Tanner said, "is that the first rung for any career ladder for teacher assistants, if the district wants them to complete college, is a stable job."
Given the current situation, Mr. Tanner said, only about half of the teacher assistants are serious about completing college and becoming certified. The rest are "career teacher assistants" who enroll in college courses every two years for the sake of qualifying for permits to teach, but who then drop their classes or take such courses as aerobics or arts and crafts.
The union originally asked that the district's college-enrollment requirement be dropped, but since has endorsed the existing system. District officials, meanwhile, are seeking to require that the teacher assistants take more courses.
Union officials contend that an agreement they reached with Superintendent of Schools William R. Anton last month would have resolved most other major bargaining issues.
Under that agreement, they said, teacher assistants who work at least four hours a day would be provided full medical coverage; all assistants would get 10 days a year for illness and holidays; one hour would be added to the workday of assistants whose hours were recently cut; and a joint labor-management committee would be created to develop a career ladder.
But Ms. Munatones, the district's spokeswoman, said Mr. Anton's discussions with the union were strictly exploratory, and "we categorically deny that there were any promises, agreements, or commitments."
She said the district has already cut $220 million from its budget for this year and is going through "a severe budget crisis" that prevents it from meeting the union's demands.
Representatives of the school board said last week that the board was refusing to guarantee hours but was offering to pay half the health benefits of teacher assistants who work at least four hours a day. District officials estimate that the increased medical benefits would cost the district $16 million over two years.
Noting that the district's annual budget exceeds $4 billion, Mr. Tanner said the school board was relegating the teacher assistants to a low budget priority and seemed unwilling to invest in helping them to attain certification as bilingual instructors.
Mr. Tanner contended that the district instead spends millions of dollars each year to recruit 400 to 500 bilingual teachers from Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, almost all of whom end up failing the certification test and returning to their homelands after a year.
Mr. Tanner called the overseas recruitment "a policy of failure."
Ms. Munatones countered that the district must recruit overseas because of its "desperate need" for bilingual teachers. Local 99 would only aggravate the situation, she said, by demanding that the teacher assistants not be required to take more college courses leading to certification.
To press their points, members of Local 99 have picketed schools, staged protests, and held "laryngitis days," during which the assistants refused to talk in the classrooms.
In addition, in a complaint filed with the California Public Employment Relations Board, the union has accused the district of unfair labor practices for reducing during contract talks the number of hours many of the teacher assistants can work.
Leaders of the United Teachers of Los Angeles have urged its members to picket with the assistants before and after school and during lunch breaks, and to refuse to do tasks usually carried out by the assistants.
But Catherine M. Carey, a spokeswoman for the United Teachers, said ''education is still going on" without the teacher assistants, despite the fact some tutoring and complex translating is not occurring.
Chuck J. Acosta, president of the California Association for Bilingual Education, said that about 40,000 bilingual teacher assistants work throughout the state, and that most districts hire them for less than four hours a day to avoid paying benefits.
He said demands that all assistants receive benefits were "unrealstic," but that he would like to see the Los Angeles district offer benefits to those aides who have almost completed their training as teachers.
"Whatever Los Angeles does with its paraprofessionals," Mr. Acosta predicted, "other districts are going to review it and follow it with some sort of package of their own."
Vol. 10, Issue 15, Pages 1,10