New Issues, Tight Budgets Slow Contract Talks

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With the negotiating season drawing to a close, teachers' strikes remain possible--in some cases very likely--in several major school districts. Negotiations in Chicago and Philadelphia are making little, if any, progress, and in Detroit, both sides are trying to agree on ways to meet a $27-million shortfall.

But in contracts being settled in Florida this summer, teachers are achieving salary gains of 10-to-12 percent, and there is the possibility of a strike in only one county, according to union officials there.

Between these extremes, however, lie most of the school districts that are negotiating teachers' contracts this year. More than 60 percent of all public-school teachers are covered by collective-bargaining agreements, according to the Census Bureau.

As officials on both sides of the bargaining table point out, generalizations about collective-bargaining negotiations are unsafe. But interviews with national, state, and local officials who are currently working on negotiations suggest that some patterns are emerging:

The effects of last year's strike by patco, the federal air-traffic-controllers' union, are far less pronounced than some observers predicted they would be.

Fewer but more acrimonious strikes are expected this year; some will be in large urban districts where labor problems that have developed over the past several years are compounded by an ailing economy and federal budget cuts.

In most districts, money continues to be the major bargaining issue, but in a growing number of cases, job security appears to be taking precedence over salary gains.

Regional differences in settlements are becoming more pronounced; the effects of a poor national economy are unevenly distributed.

School boards are taking a hard-line approach. Perhaps following the lead of the automobile industry, many are proposing "rollbacks" in contracts with teachers. Depending upon the local situation, teachers' unions may or may not agree to such cuts.

School officials are growing leerier of negotiating multi-year contracts. Next year, the money committed for teachers' raises may not be there.

Late Legislative Sessions

Although the beginning of the school year is close at hand, many districts in which contracts have expired or are about to--approximately one-half to one-third of them--have not yet signed their contracts, according to officials from both the American Federation of Teachers (aft) and the National Education Association (nea). They attribute this to late state legislative sessions and the ongoing problem of absorbing budget cuts at all levels.

In Michigan, for example, where the governor last week announced that $150 million would be cut from this year's state bud-get, negotiations are moving very slowly, according to Keith B. Geiger, president of the Michigan Education Association. In his experience, he said, it is the first year that officials on both sides of the bargaining table have been unable to get a clear sense of the situation this late in the summer.

In many cases, union officials expect teachers to return to work without a contract. In Pennsylvania, for example, school board officials expect an unusually high number of districts to begin the school year with negotiations still underway, according to Dorsey E. Enck, director of management services for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

In Indianapolis, too, teachers would probably return to the classroom with no contract if an agreement is not reached by the time school starts, according to Patricia Browne, president of the Indianapolis Education Association. Negotiations were delayed by the arrival of a new district superintendent, and the union received no proposals until Aug. 4.

As of Aug. 16, she said, "Things are not going well." Nevertheless, she added, "There's no way the teachers could strike this year."

And in New York City, where union officials report that things are going well, the teachers will return to school under the terms of the old contract if the new one is not yet signed.

Officials from unions and school boards alike suggest that the willingness to return to work without a contract is due more to the poor economy than to the any lingering effects of last year's patco strike.

"My feeling is that the effect [of the strike] was minimal," said John E. Dunlop, manager of negotiations for the nea "If there is a decrease in the number of strikes, it will be because of the economic situation, not patco," he said. The nea anticipates fewer strikes this year--140 to 150, compared to approximately 190 last year.

'General State of the Economy'

Union officials elsewhere concur with that evaluation. In Ohio, the patco strike may have had an influence last year; there were no strikes in progress when school opened in the fall. But this year, "people are more concerned with the general state of the economy," said N. Eugene Brundige, director of UniServ for the Ohio Education Association (oea). There is, he said, more of a feeling that "we'd better be glad we have a job." He anticipates 12 to 15 strikes--fewer than average.

However, the patco strike has increased public awareness of public-sector bargaining, noted Mr. Enck of the Pennsylvania school-boards group. "People know what all those words mean now," he said, referring to the language of collective bargaining.

Some communities have "zeroed in" on contracts, he added, and school-board officials in Pennsylvania suspect that some contracts will not be ratified because local citizens will disapprove of the agreements.

Financial strains in most districts are not as great as they are in some urban areas, but money problems are high on everyone's list of major issues. The generally weak economy is exerting the strongest influence over negotiations this year, according to national, state, and local officials. Teachers in some areas are seeking smaller increases--a trend that has also been linked to the air-traffic-controllers' strike.

Representatives of the unions deny any connection. "If the union proposals are more moderate, it is because of a realistic assessment of the financial state," said Philip M. Kugler, special assistant to the president for organization at the aft "There would be a realization of what the economics of bargaining are in a number of trouble spots."

In most districts, he said, gains have been made, and the contracts ratified cannot be construed as "the union caving in." Final figures are not available, but many average settlements include 7-to-8 percent salary increases, Mr. Dunlop said.

According to U.S. Labor Department figures for the first six months of 1982, contracts negotiated for unionized workers in the private sector averaged 3-percent increases in the first contract year, with an average increase of 2.7 percent during each subsequent year of the contract. The figures on which the average increases are based include those workers who received no scheduled increase.

Among those who did receive an increase, the average was between 6 and 7 percent--comparable to the increases received on the previous contract.

Economic Impact Varies

The impact of economic hard times varies from place to place, Mr. Kugler noted. In regions where the economy is healthy, teachers are still making gains comparable to those achieved in past years. "In the few places where you find collective bargaining in the Sunbelt," he said, "there's growth. We are going for the economic gains."

In "growth regions," such as Florida, negotiations lack some of the twists and turns with which fiscally troubled regions must contend, union officials say. Teachers are virtually certain to receive increases; the issue in question is how large the increases will be.

In Florida, "the biggest issue is money," according to Byron Marlowe, a research specialist for the Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association.

This is so, he said, partly because the governor and the legislature have set goals for increasing teachers' salaries. But with few exceptions, most of the state's 67 counties are still growing. Other contract issues and language have provoked concern, he said, but "basically, we're into straightforward economic bargaining."

Negotiations have become much more complicated in regions where unemployment is high, school enrollments are dropping, and districts--such as Detroit--must contend simultaneously with federal, state, and local budget cuts.

In these areas, the choice is not one of whether to make cuts, but which cuts to make. In financially tight situations, Mr. Kugler said, "The interest is in job security, limiting the damage, and guarding against 'rape' of the contract."

Many school boards are proposing no-raise contracts. In Los Angeles, the district's initial proposal included no cost-of-living raises and also suggested changes in other salary-increase measures. The United Teachers of Los Angeles organization, however, does not plan to go along with that proposal; the union countered with a request for an 11-percent raise. As of last week, the two parties were still negotiating, and hopeful of reaching a settlement before schools open on Sept. 11.

Other boards are suggesting "takebacks"--the return of benefits or salary increases negotiated in earli-er contracts--which most union officials find unacceptable.

In Detroit, for example, the school board proposed a $27-million "concessions package." Negotiations, according to John M. Elliott, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, have focused on where the overall budget can be cut. "There are some things that are as real as the sun coming up," he said. "One is that this is not business as usual."

Accepting Increases

Unions in some districts are accepting increases below those negotiated earlier. In Coos Bay, Ore., for example, where a languishing lumber industry is hurting the economy, teachers took a cut in salary based on the scheduled increase, according to Tony Conklin, research consultant for the Oregon Education Association. Such "retrenchment" efforts are an area of major concern in Ohio as well, said Mr. Brundige of that state's nea affiliate. Some boards there are proposing the elimination of nonmoney items as well--for example, the "just-cause" dismissal clauses contained in most contracts. In Los Angeles, the board also proposed major changes in the statutory dismissal measures.

In Pennsylvania, where the lagging steel industry has raised the unemployment rate in some areas, teachers have also conceded gains won in earlier contracts, said Mr. Enck of the state's school-boards group. He pointed out also that teachers in a town where a steel mill has closed can hardly expect to receive guarantees of job security when half the town is unemployed.

Some districts have faced a choice between accepting lower--or no--salary gains, or laying off teachers. "We have been urging locals not to forgo salary increases to keep positions," Mr. Dunlop of the nea said. But such decisions must be made by the local members, he said.

The aft also generally advises against accepting salary cuts to save jobs, Mr. Kugler said. Experience has shown, he said, that the teachers are usually rehired, but funds are seldom returned. In general, he said, union affiliates try to make sure that layoffs are as equitable as possible. "The protections of seniority are paramount," he added.

Some Ohio districts in this situation have chosen to hold onto positions and forgo the money, Mr. Brundige said. No statewide figures are available, but in general, he said, "My sense is that we're keeping jobs. No rollbacks as such, but a lesser increase seems to be a pattern."

But in Michigan, the trend seems to be toward salary rather than positions, Mr. Geiger of the state teachers' association said. Some teachers, he said, are responding to such suggestions by saying that they negotiated the contract in good faith, and they're going to stand by it.

Union officials are also concerned that some districts may take advantage of a generally tight economic situation to cut costs more than is necessary. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that there will be a cooperative relationship, that administrators won't be using hard times as an excuse," Mr. Kugler said.

But in some places, Mr. Kugler said, employers are using the fiscal crunch as an excuse to "turn back the clock and reduce the noneconomic items as well--weaken grievance procedures, leave policies, and other items--just to challenge the union within a labor-relations framework."

Mr. Conklin of the Oregon Education Association points to at least one instance in which he believes this has happened. "In the Portland metropolitan area," he said, "we are seeing a trend of school boards holding tight, claiming that the economy is hurting them. The facts do not substantiate that."

Uneasiness about future funding has also made some school officials nervous about negotiating multi-year contracts. In Oregon, a property-tax-limitation measure that will be on the ballot in November is already affecting negotiations, according to Mr. Conklin. If the measure passes, school districts could lose up to 33 percent of their funding, making it extremely difficult for some districts to meet contract terms.

Cooperation Prevails

Despite the difficult climate in which negotiations must take place, cooperation, rather than antagonism, prevails in many districts. "There are an awful lot of districts that we're working with, seeking to build these relationships, working with administrators, and seeking to build coalitions at the local level," Mr. Kugler said.

In St. Louis, for example, a failed tax referendum has left the district short of money. School-district officials had discussed, but had not officially proposed, that the contract be reopened.

Officials from the teachers union, an aft affiliate, are now holding "informational" talks with the school board on ways to meet the shortfall; the two groups may work together to find the funds.

Vol. 01, Issue 41

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