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Providence Teachers Strike Over Health Care

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Teachers in Providence, R.I., walked picket lines last week in a dispute over health-care coverage, while the mayor threatened to fire them if they did not return to work.

Though talks had broken off early in the week, a superior-court judge on Sept. 7 ordered both sides back to the bargaining table, said Beryl Kenyon, a spokeswoman for Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr.

The district's 1,588 teachers say the city is trying to downgrade their health-care plan.

Marcia Reback, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, said late last week that Providence teachers have accepted a pay freeze in three of the last five years, increased taxes to support their pension plans, and were now being asked to change to an unacceptable health plan.

The teachers were not being unreasonable, she said. "It's not a lot of greed on their part."

Yet Mr. Cianci maintained that the stalling point in negotiations was the teachers' request for lifetime health-care coverage for families, an offer that was part of an early-retirement incentive that has since expired. "That offer cannot be extended to current employees because the cost will rise exponentially," Ms. Kenyon said.

But as for the mayor's contention that this issue was the sticking point, Ms. Reback said, "If that's the only issue that's dividing for the teachers, the strike could be settled in an instant."

Around the country, several smaller districts were in the midst of negotiations with teachers last week, but experts said that, overall, the number of strikes was down from last year.

"It's interesting--there are far fewer this year," said Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association. One reason, she suggested, is that both school boards and teachers have gradually adopted an attitude that communication is preferable to confrontation.

Other experts also noted that the negotiating process has become more open.

Agreement in L.A.

In Los Angeles, for example, a new rule allows union auditors to be present during the district's budgeting process, said Shel Erlich, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Unified School District. With that rule in place, he said, the union was not worrying this year about any "pots of money" that might be hidden in the budget.

As a result, the nation's second-largest school district reached a tentative agreement with teachers Aug. 29 on a three-year contract. It raises salaries 3 percent this school year--returning teachers to their pre-1991 salary level--and allows for the possibility of increases in the second and third years if additional money becomes available to the district.

"By the time we got to the actual negotiations, it took about two weeks and was not marked by a lot of the rancor that we've had in the past," said Mr. Erlich. He said it was "the smoothest, the most harmonious negotiations--and possibly the earliest negotiations I can remember."

Elsewhere, schools were closed last week in Monroe Township, N.J., as teachers went on strike. At issue were salary, health insurance, and the length of the school day. Negotiations in the 4,300-student Gloucester County district continued late last week.

Teachers in the 2,000-student Steubenville, Ohio, district worked without a contract, and teachers set a strike date for Sept. 19. Negotiations, which have stalled over salaries, insurance, and other issues, were scheduled to resume this week.

In 19,000-student Green Bay, Wis., teachers have begun the school year on the terms of their 1991-94 contract.

If negotiations fail to produce an agreement, teachers agreed last week to meet Sept. 18 to consider further action.

Jerry Olbrich, the president of the Green Bay Education Association, noted that their options were limited because strikes are illegal for municipal employees in Wisconsin.

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