Tight Budgets Escalate School Labor Tensions

By Karen Diegmueller — April 17, 1991 19 min read

After nearly a decade of relatively harmonious labor relations, signs of rising teacher unrest have become increasingly evident in recent months, educators and union leaders say.

The new tension on education’s labor front, brought on in large part by the economic recession hitting much of the nation, is seen by many as potentially jeopardizing school reforms fostered by the long era of peace.

Among the many events signaling a major shift in teacher sentiment are the following--all of which can be traced in large part to conflicts over money:

In January, teachers in Kettering, Ohio, staged a three-day walkout--the first in district history.

Teachers in North Kingston, R.I., struck last fall for the first time ever.

Only 62 percent of Orange County (Fla.) Classroom Teachers Association members ratified their new contract this school year, down from the typical 90 percent passage rate for the union.

Union leaders in South Orange-Maplewood, N.J., barely escaped jail last fall when they defied a back-to-work order.

The California Teachers Association late this winter broadcast hard-hitting television commercials accusing Gov. Pete Wilson of trying to make budget cuts detrimental to children.

New York City teachers rebuffed Mayor David N. Dinkins, who is once again seeking monetary concessions from the city’s labor unions. “We have drawn a line in the sand, so to speak, about givebacks,” a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers said.

After years of neglect, teachers in the past decade have grown accustomed to healthy salary increases as a result of both the long economic expansion and the school-reform movement.

Now, however, with the recession exacting a heavy toll on state and local government budgets, teachers have small, if any, raises to look forward to.

What direction teacher dissatisfaction takes, education and labor-relations authorities say, could determine the fate of school reform for years to come.

“As times get tighter, the scramble for less money causes a return to interest-group politics,” said Rexford G. Brown, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. “On the other hand, when times get tight, it’s a chance for people to see how they are allocating money.”

“The odds are probably more in favor of the competitive, adversarial model,” Mr. Brown said, “but I think there’s some hope for new perspectives on how to spend money that is currently going into education.”

Strikes and Layoff Notices

Statistics on the number of teachers’ strikes also give an indication of the new mood of militance. The peak year came in 1979-80, when 242 walkouts were recorded, according to Carolyn Wallace of the National Education Association.

The number of strikes, by district, then began to drop each year until 1986, when there were only 55. By 1988, strikes had risen to 87, only to fall again the following year to 59.

But last year, there were 73 strikes, and that figure understates the real extent of activity because statewide job actions by Oklahoma and West Virginia teachers were counted as only one strike each.

As of Jan. 17, 61 strikes had been recorded in the current academic year. Looming this week, moreover, are multi-local walkouts in 55 percent of the districts in Washington State. (See Education Week, March 27, 1991.)

With so few years of data to analyze, numbers alone may represent little more than statistical anomalies, caution spokesmen for the American Federation of Teachers. Each strike needs to be examined in its own right, they suggest, because monetary issues may not be the root cause of them all.

Still, there are other signs of troubled times ahead as well.

More layoff notices have been sent to teachers this spring than in a decade, according to Jewell Gould, director of research at aft

Mr. Gould estimates that from 5 percent to 10 percent of the nation’s teachers have received layoff notices. Districts frequently are legally required to send such advance notices, but do not in the end actually lay off all those who received the warnings.

Nonetheless, there are enough clues around to worry educators.

“Storm clouds are gathering over public education as two powerful forces collide: the need for school reform and the contingencies of an impending recession,” wrote two University of Pennsylvania educators in an Education Week commentary last October.

Wrote Harris J. Sokoloff, executive director of the university’s Center for School Study Councils, and Marvin Lazerson, dean of the Graduate School of Education: “Already, the tension between these forces is revealing (once again) how vulnerable school-improvement efforts are to financial strain. If the storm clouds burst, there will be conflict between schools and their communities, reduced funds for education, strife between teachers and school districts, and incalculable losses to our children.”

The pair said they prepared the commentary after listening to school superintendents in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Illinois lament their inability to proceed with reforms while their budgets, containing preordained contract provisions, were falling behind.

“If you’re going to increase budgets 4 percent and teachers’ salaries 8 percent, you have to cut things out,” Mr. Sokoloff said in an interview. “The things that school districts do best could end up on the cutting board.”

Deflecting From Reform

During the 1980’s, many states made the effort to increase teachers’ salaries. Connecticut, for example, passed the Education Enhancement Act, raising average pay to the second-highest in the nation, while Louisiana pumped $485 million into teachers’ salaries.

For their part, unions became more accommodating, showing a willingness to support and, in some instances, champion reform.

“It was certainly true that the local unions most likely to go after professional items were those who got the bread-and-butter items early on,” said Lorraine McDonnell, a senior political scientist at the rand Corporation.

Moreover, she said, “unions could pay more attention to reform issues when there was more fiscal slack in the system.”

As the pool of money dries up, however, Ms. McDonnell foresees a potential problem. “It’s certainly going to deflect their attention from reform issues,” she warned.

In New York City, for instance, Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez has pledged to make site-based management the cornerstone of his administration. Yet, since last spring, he has largely been preoccupied with coping with the effects of $270 million in city-ordered budget cuts alone.

“Every minute of his time is not [focused] on education reform but on holding on to as much of the budget as he possibly can,” said Albert Shanker, president of the aft

Susan Buswell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, noted that scarcity of money can harm reform efforts “even if some of these things don’t cost anything.”

For example, she said, staffing is frequently cut during a budgetary crisis. Consequently, teachers and administrators “not only don’t have the mind freedom, which lets them think about changes in education, but they are being required to accomplish more because there are fewer of them,” she added.

Nor is there money available for educators and school-board members to attend meetings and training sessions. “You become even more insular at a time when it is critical to look up and around you,” Ms. Buswell observed.

An Uneasy Relationship

Many of these strains are being played out in two Ohio districts, Toledo and Cincinnati, that have gained a reputation for implementing innovative reforms, in large measure as a result of solid relationships between the teachers’ unions and district officials.

But this year, relations have soured since voters in both cities rejected property-tax levies, forcing school officials to propose cost-saving measures opposed by the unions.

In Toledo, the school board had recommended cutting an intern-intervention program and a “Writing to Read” program while, according to union leaders, retaining administrative perquisites. (See Education Week, March 6, 1991.)

A fact-finder subsequently urged that the programs be spared.

Dal Lawrence, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, described the long-term relationship between officials and teachers as excellent. Nevertheless, he noted, “The fact-finder said it is frayed, and he is right. It is now a very uneasy relationship.”

The potential for a strike depends both on the ties between teachers and officials and on whether there is a salary increase forthcoming, according to Mr. Lawrence.

“At some time, teachers ... get tired of subsidizing schools out of their pockets,” he contended."If [the relationship is] good, you don’t mind trying to help in any way you can. If it’s bad, it’s going to be chaotic.”

Cincinnati, too, is under financial pressure as a result of a tax-levy defeat and anticipated cuts in state aid. To alleviate the short-term pressure, the state has given the district permission to borrow $27 million to get through the year.

In the interim, the district came up with $15 million in cuts, which will slow the implementation of such reforms as a career ladder for teachers prepared to take leadership positions in the schools.

Meanwhile, contract talks, which have been going on since November, have stalled because the school board wants the teachers to take an indefinite salary freeze. The union has ruled out such a concession, however, and is demanding a raise equal to the local inflation rate.

The financial situation “is definitely jeopardizing reforms that aren’t even that expensive, and is certainly straining the kind of relationship that is required to launch and sustain reform efforts,” said Tom Mooney, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.

Although a strike is not imminent, he said, that could change if there is no tax-levy passage and accompanying salary increase.

In the long run, Mr. Mooney warned, the financial tension imperils union leaders’ attempts to encourage members to see the union’s role in a new light. “If you can’t protect their basic welfare,” he said, “you can’t expect them to follow you down the reform road either.”

The Money-Reform Rift

The rift between reform and money has also been dramatically evident in Rochester, N.Y., where the teachers’ union and the school board this school year twice reached tentative agreement on far-reaching reform initiatives. The accords were rejected, however, first by rank-and-file union members and then by the school board. (See Education Week, Feb. 6, 1991.)

The second contract, which offered 27 percent increases over three years, received nearly universal approval by the city’s teachers. But it went down to defeat before the board, which cited its cost at a time of great financial uncertainty.

Rochester teachers and other members of the community are angry and frustrated, while prospects for reform are widely acknowledged to have suffered setbacks.

San Francisco, which has also embarked on a major restructuring project, could lose as many as one-fourth of its teachers as the district tries to cope with a $25-million budget deficit. At one pilot school, 31 of 40 teachers have received layoff notices, according to Thomas Ruiz, the union-district coordinator for restructuring.

“In many instances, you will have half a faculty gone. It will be newer, younger teachers, and some of them were the most into reform,” said Joan-Marie Shelley, president of United Educators of San Francisco.

“We are trying very hard at the moment to keep the focus on Sacramento,” Ms. Shelley said. “However, the layoff letters come from this school district. It’s very difficult at times when these are the same people who are sending out layoff notices ... to not have some sort of adversarial relationship.”

Adding to the concern are cuts proposed by the district administration, such as the elimination of teachers’ preparation periods, that Ms. Shelley said would violate the teachers’ contract.

The pending cuts have also taken their toll on the pilot schools’ budget-making authority, efforts to expand the number of pilot schools, and restructuring of the central administration, Mr. Ruiz said.

He noted the irony of a first year of budget-making in which the schools “get to decide where to cut and how.”

Depending on the County

Union unrest has been most evident so far in school districts that are dependent on city or county governments for funding.

Last year, teachers in Yonkers, N.Y., for example, walked off the job for two days. They were joined by school administrators and civil-service workers in the schools.

“The funny thing was, it was not against the board of education,” said Walter Tice, president of the Yonkers Federation of Teachers. “They agreed if we didn’t get the increase, the school system would go belly up.”

The job action was aimed instead at the city council, which provides funding for the school system.

Teachers in Howard County, Md., a rapidly growing suburb of Washington, have scheduled a work slowdown this month under which teachers will do no more than what is specifically called for in their contract.

So far, though, teachers’ animosity has been directed at officials of the county rather than the school district.

“The relationship at this point between the board and the teachers is cordial,” said Deborah Kendig, chairman of the Howard County school board. “We’re all in this together.”

Howard teachers are completing the first year of a three-year contract that provides for a 6 percent increase each year. But for the first time in the fiscally dependent school district’s history, the county appears to be unwilling to provide enough money to fulfill the contract.

Faced with a deficit this year, the county executive, a former deputy superintendent for the district, crafted a budget with no pay raises for public employees.

“If you don’t stand up and at least have a symbolic protest, it’s going to happen to you again and again and again,” said James R. Swab, president of the Howard County Education Association.

“We’re realists; we understand there need to be reductions,” Mr. Swab said. “We believe things could be done other than taking it out on the backs of employees.”

New State Focus

The growing state share of education funding has also produced a new--and frequently frustrating for teachers--evolution in school labor relations.

“What’s different about now is the states fund a majority of school expenditures across the country,” said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University. “The question becomes, whom do you strike against?”

In California, for example, the state provides 68 percent of district funds and controls about 90 percent, according to Mr. Kirst.

“As school boards have lost control of their financial destiny at the local level,” he observed, “then the labor actions must be different from the traditional strike.”

Among the tactics available to unions to affect state funding are electoral campaigns, media advertisements, and demonstrations.

In its effort to resist Governor Wilson’s call for suspending education-funding guarantees in the California constitution, the cta began a series of five television commercials designed to alert the public to the potential effects of budget cuts.

The ads dealt with school dropouts, insufficient computers, and overcrowding in higher education. A fourth spot compared students to endangered species and found the students were the more threatened.

The commercial that got the most play focused on a little girl who was worried that she would lose her teacher if the legislature suspended the funding guarantee.

The commercials were followed by a rally this month in Sacramento.

Cta officials said they have no choice but to focus their energy on the state rather than local districts. “There is no reason to go out on strike,” said the union president, Ed Foglia. “If we go out on strike, we have to pay for that, too.”

Singling Out Teachers?

To cope with their budget deficits, officials in some states have introduced measures that would dramatically affect district budgets and, in turn, teachers’ salaries. Some unions have interpreted the proposals as a return to “teacher bashing.”

Maryland lawmakers this year absolved counties from maintaining a specified level of financial support, even to those districts in which enrollment is expected to increase.

To discourage districts from raising salaries, the legislature also required those that do so to pick up the increased costs of Social Security and retirement payments.

Although the legislation is considered to be less punitive than had been proposed initially, “It’s a clear interference into local autonomy,” Mr. Swab, the Howard County union leader, said.

Teachers “perceive this clearly as very unfair to them,” said Ms. Buswell of the state school-boards group.

Still, “the legislators are not singling them out,” Ms. Buswell noted, because raises have been ruled out for all state workers this year.

“One can only hope we’re living through a brief time,” she said. “To destroy working relations on the basis of something over which we have no control is not productive.”

In Connecticut, some legislators are trying to slow down the rise in teachers’ salaries by modifying the state’s binding-arbitration law. At the same time, a reinstatement of strike privileges is also up for review.

The law currently provides that an impartial arbitrator select either the last best offer of the school board or of the union. In the past five years, the arbitrator has favored the unions three-fourths of the time and ordered settlements above the rate of inflation, according to the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

“Binding arbitration is one of the hallmarks that is ripping apart the fabric of school-board budgets,” said Mark O. Linabury, staff associate for government relations for the organization. Meanwhile, he said, programs are being cut, among them sweeping reforms designed to elevate teacher training.

If teachers must choose between program enrichments and bread-and-butter issues, Mr. Linabury predicted, their concerns over pay and benefits will win out. “Preservation of their bargaining position is something they don’t want to lose out on,” he said.

Indeed, teachers in many areas are facing difficult choices between programming and financial benefits.

The first-ever strike in North Kingston, R.I., for example, focused chiefly on wages.

“In prior years, I would have said there was a certain percentage that said,'Let’s tighten our belts again,”’ said Joseph C. Mercurio, president of n.e.a.-North Kingston. But not this time; it took less than a half hour to secure a strike vote by the 360-member union.

Rhode Island’s financial troubles have intensified since then, and Mr. Mercurio fears that such innovative programming as a school-within-a-school for unmotivated students will be in jeopardy.

Asked whether salaries or programs should be sacrificed, Mr. Mercurio replied, “I would advocate that the town could pick up both.”

Permission for Sacrifice

In a recent book, Arthur B. Shostak, a professor of sociology at Drexel University, suggests that labor unions in general will continue in the 1990’s to trade adversarial ways for cooperative approaches.

Mr. Shostak also argues, though, that in difficult financial times the scenario pivots on how management communicates with union members.

“If the information is conveyed in a lightning-bolt fashion or if it is conveyed at the end of a seething rumor situation, then the die is cast,” and hostilities are likely to follow, he said in a recent interview.

"[But] if the information is part and parcel of a long-term collaborative relationship, such that there are no surprises ... then you give leeway for people to tighten their belt and sacrifice,” Mr. Shostak added.

School-based management falls into the latter category, he said.

“The greatest strength is that it gives a permission slip for sacrifice,” he said. “The understanding is that the sacrifice comes with promissory notes.”

In February, Hartford, Conn., school officials told the unions that the district had a $2.8-million deficit, according to the Hartford Federation of Teachers. “This thing sort of sprang up all of a sudden,” said William F. Hagan, vice president of the union. “They should have been aware of it.”

Given a week to reach a decision, Mr. Hagan said, union leaders offered the membership two proposals. One plan would have given the school board the two-day furlough it had sought in exchange for such protections as no layoffs. But members chose the other approach--no concessions--making the teachers’ group the only one of a dozen municipal and school unions to do so.

“The board put us in a sensitive squeeze play, and they left us hanging,” Mr. Hagan said. “That was unfortunate because we didn’t have time to educate the membership. Because the board chose the political strategy they did, which was not to communicate with the union, which was not to negotiate with the union, they have poisoned the atmosphere.”

Site-Based Management

Conversely, officials in Dade County, Fla., predict less union dissension despite major problems with the district budget.

Dade County schools are anticipating an enrollment increase of some 10,000 students. Yet, given state budget projections, the district may have to cut as many as 1,500 teaching jobs and leave no discretionary program untouched, according to Richard H. Hinds, senior associate superintendent for financial affairs.

But Dade schools practice site-based management, which gives teachers more control over decisions affecting their schools.

Feeling pinched this year, for example, one elementary school chose to use teachers in place of the retiring media specialist. “That itself demonstrates how a school-based management technique can really allow schools to chart their own destiny,” Mr. Hinds said.

In financially difficult times, Mr. Gould of the aft said, teachers are willing to work with officials if their value is recognized. Such was the case, he said, when Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore sought to defer teachers’ salary increases that were to take effect in July.

“Schmoke had the foresight to say, ‘I can’t pay you now what you’re worth,”’ Mr. Gould observed. “That sends an entirely different message.”

A different kind of example comes from Troy, Mich., however, where a judge ordered teachers back to work after a three-week strike in September. They have still not settled their contract dispute, and have staged a “sick-out” at two high schools, which the union said it had not sanctioned.

“I honestly don’t know if we will come back next September,” said Glenn Rexer, president of the Troy Education Association. “I cannot give any guarantees that Troy schools will start on time. My concern is that, once we’re settled, how long is it going to take to fix the mess that was created.”

Strikes and other job actions could undermine progress teachers and their unions have made in recent years to cultivate community support and gain acceptance as professionals, educators warn.

Among the public, the prevailing perception continues to be that professionals do not go on strike, Mr. Brown of the E.C.S. said.

“One of the problems the public has in dealing with this is if teachers are professionals, why do they act like blue-collar workers in getting their demands?” Mr. Brown said. “That is the kind of thing that business people are going to be saying.”

“If they do slip back into the old mode,” he added, “then I think it is a blow to teacher professionalism--not just in terms of public image, but in wasting an enormous amount of energy in focusing on the wrong things.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 1991 edition of Education Week as Tight Budgets Escalate School Labor Tensions