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R.I. Legislature, Labor Board Intervene in Warwick Dispute

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Gov. Bruce Sundlun of Rhode Island last week called a special session of the legislature in an attempt to end a longstanding contract dispute in Warwick between the teachers' union and the school committee.

In the session scheduled for last Friday, legislators were to consider options for resolving the issue, including binding arbitration, a 90-day cooling-off period, and a fact-finding mission.

The state Labor Relations Board also met last week to consider the union's charge that the Warwick school committee had engaged in unfair labor practices.

Earlier in the week, the Warwick Teachers Union had rejected an 11th-hour proposal from the committee that was intended to end the stalemate over salaries, class size, and layoffs.

Since Sept. 1, when contract negotiations between the parties broke down, the dispute has twice erupted into a strike.

The labor board became involved after striking teachers from the 990-member union agreed to return to work on Oct. 19 without a contract. The district's 12,000 students returned to classes the following day.

At issue is a draft contract proposed by the committee last year defining the terms under which teachers are working, said Mary Pendergast, the president of the union.

The groups tried last month to resolve disagreements over the terms of the three-year contract. But while the parties agreed on most of the terms in the tentative agreement, differences over class-size limits caused a breakdown in negotiations.

The parties decided to set class size at an average of 25 and a maximum of 28. But negotiators disagreed over how much additional income teachers would be paid for students over the average, Ms. Pendergast said.

An impasse over limiting layoffs put another crack in the negotiations.

Future Raises At Issue

The committee's most recent contract proposal would have given the teachers a 3.5 percent salary increase in September 1993 and 1994 and a 1 percent increase in January 1994 and 1995.

That was rejected by the union, according to Ms. Pendergast, who said that while teachers "would be willing to accept another [pay] freeze this year, we would want the increases that were agreed to in September '91.''

Under the earlier terms, teachers would have received pay increases of 5.5 percent in 1992-1993 and 5 percent the following year.

The negotiations have been plagued by other troubles as well. Last week, a member of the school committee said that the panel's chairman, Robert Quinlan, had undermined the latest contract offer by including a "threatening ultimatum'' to the teachers. Mr. Quinlan denied the charge.

In addition, a group of junior high students walked out of classes in protest of plans to have them make up the 13 days lost in the teacher walkouts during school vacations.

Henry Tarlian, the superintendent of the Warwick schools, said "the anger and frustration I see [in the community] is just unbelievable.''

"In view of the recession, teachers need to moderate their demands,'' Mr. Tarlian maintained.

Both sides seem to believe that the legislative session could have a calming effect. While there is "little chance of success'' for binding arbitration, Mr. Tarlian said, the cooling-off period and fact-finding mission proposed by Governor Sundlun would "bring us into January when a new school board could be seated and negotiations could continue.''

"It's always in the best interest of the parties to resolve a dispute themselves,'' Ms. Pendergast said.

But "so far the process hasn't worked,'' she added. "The Governor showed leadership in looking at other alternatives.''

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