Teachers' Strikes Up 36% Amid Signs of Growing Tension

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Teachers' strikes are running 36 percent ahead of last year—a sign, educators and others say, that labor relations may be deteriorating as a result of the prolonged economic recession.

Moreover, the economy has also prompted teachers to conduct job actions in lieu of full-fledged strikes and districts to renegotiate contracts that they say they are unable to fulfill.

As of late last week, teachers in 53 districts had gone on strike, compared with 39 last year, according to data compiled by the National Education Association.

With hundreds of contracts still not settled, educators and analysts said they expect the strikes and job actions to spread.

"We have to deal with reality," said Louis Grumet, executive director of the New York School Boards Association. "It is silly to think we're not going to have labor-relations problems in the next throe to five years."

In many areas of the country, both union and school officials realize that "the money is not there, and there are going to be more compromises," said Carolyn Wallace, the N.E.A.'s chief strike tracker. "Negotiations are going to take longer, and mediation sessions may be longer."

But elsewhere, she said, teachers will strike if they believe districts have the money.

Until a week ago, when school had opened in all but a few districts across the nation, strikes had been reported in half a dozen states- Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Last week, teachers in a district in Kentucky went out, and unions were reporting possible strikes in Idaho this week.

In the largest district affected so far, Elgin, Ill., some 28,000 students have been idled since Sept. 9, and a federal mediator has been called in to help resolve the dispute. Money Is the Issue As is the case with the majority of strikes, the primary issue in Elgin has been compensation.

District officials last week put a 3.5 percent increase on the table, prompting the union to counter with a demand for an 8.75 percent hike, according to the union.

Kimberly Huddle, a 3rd-grade teacher and a spokesman for the Elgin Teachers Association, said that the economy was not a problem for the district. She charged that the district had gone on a "spending spree" last year, buying such items as computers and constructing building additions and an all-weather track.

"Yes, they do have the money," Ms. Huddle contended.

Mr. Grumet of New York said districts and unions still tend to operate under the assumption that districts are going to get sizable increases from the legislature, which they can then pass on to the teachers.

"Suddenly, instead of a 7 percent increase, you have a 7 percent decrease," he said. '"That's like going down the highway at 70 miles per hour, and, rather than being told to slow down to 55, you're being told to stop on a dime. I don't think psychologically that has sunk in yet."

Meanwhile, teachers in Providence, R.I., who last went on strike in 1973, returned to work late last week, requiring a three-day calendar extension at the end of the year.

District teachers had sought a multi-year contract with a raise. Instead, said Arthur Zarrella, the district's acting superintendent, the settlement provides a one-year contract with no salary increase.

District and union officials were able to compromise on contract language that allows Providence to hire more minority teachers for the 21,600-student district.

"It's been simply a case of no money," Mr. Zarrella said.

An Unrealistic Premise?

School officials say that, unlike in previous years, teachers do not have the community support that has enabled them to reap higher salaries.

In two Pennsylvania districts where teachers have gone on strike this year, public meetings have drawn 1,000 and 2,000 residents to back the districts, said Curt Rose, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Mr. Rose contended that unions are operating on an unrealistic premise. "The community is not going to support those kinds of increases any more," he said.

Historically, Pennsylvania has experienced more teacher strikes than any other state, and this year is no exception.

As of late last week, strikes were up considerably from last year—19, compared with 5 in 1990.

The increased activity can be traced in part to the tardy adoption of the state budget, leaving districts' finances in limbo until shortly before the school year began. Of 133 teacher contracts up for negotiation this year, 101 remained unsettled last week.

Union leaders, however, also blame school-board actions for the spate of strikes.

William Johnson, director of communications for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said most of the strikes have been confined to districts within a 60-mile radius of Harrisburg where school boards have formed coalitions to inflame the public through surveys, newspaper advertisements, and public hearings.

Other Tactics

Like Pennsylvania, scores of contracts are still being negotiated in Massachusetts. But no strikes have been reported in the Bay State, where education funding has been cut in each of the past three years.

"Strikes are usually used to coerce [districts] to give in," said Laura Ouellette, chairman of the Attleboro School Committee. 'This year, any amount of coercion is not going to produce dollars."

Instead, Attleboro teachers picketed the schools before classes began to express their demands.

No strikes have been reported in New York either, but teachers in the Phoenix district, whose contract expired a year ago, erected a hot-pink billboard proclaiming, "Approaching Phoenix, where education has no future."A tentative accord was reached last week.

Districts and unions, hit by budget cuts, are also renegotiating contracts.

Last week, teachers had reached a tentative agreement with the Montebello Unified School District outside Los Angeles over revisions in the second year of a two-year contract.

Recognizing that money is scarce and labor strife may engender community enmity, some labor leaders have already written the year off, said Jewell Gould, research director of the American Federation of Teachers.

Among them, he said, is Pat Tornillo, executive vice president of United Teachers of Dade, who will seek a 15 percent increase for the Florida union next year.

Mr. Gould added: "They are the ones who are saying, 'We are convinced what we are doing [with respect to reform] is right. We are putting our political fortunes on the line, but preservation of our momentum counts as much.'"

Vol. 11, Issue 03, Page 2

Published in Print: September 18, 1991, as Teachers' Strikes Up 36% Amid Signs of Growing Tension
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