Teaneck Teachers, Board Settle After a Vitriolic 19-Day Strike

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Teaneck, N.J.--The jailing of teachers seemed bizarre, out of place, in Teaneck, a liberal, upper-middle-class community of 40,000 where parents discuss where, not whether, their children will attend college.

But on Sept. 29, 36 of Teaneck's teachers were led into a trailer adjacent to the Bergen County Jail Annex in Hackensack, where they would spend a day for defying a judge's order to end their strike. During the following two days, 151 of the 600 striking teachers, secretaries, and aides were confined during daylight hours in a makeshift jail at the Washington Irving School.

At issue, on the surface, was the small gap between the 19-percent raise the teachers were demanding over two years and the 16.5 percent offered by the board of education. For the average teacher, already earning $24,000 in one of New Jersey's higher-paying districts, 2.5 percent would mean $600 over the two years. For the board, which had lost some federal and state aid and was working with a 7-percent annual limit on spending increases, the difference would mean $250,000 in a budget of $24 million.

But for both sides, the real issue was control over the process through which a settlement would eventually be reached.

The 19-day strike, which was settled last week when teachers accepted a 17-percent raise over the first two years of the contract and an automatic cost-of-living raise in the third, had become a vitriolic test of wills. The teachers picketed the schools and the board's office and shouted invectives at the 350 $85-per-day substitutes who had helped keep the schools open. They maintained vigils outside Washington Irving each day their colleagues were detained there.

The Teaneck Teachers Association ran advertisements in local weeklies questioning the board's decision to spurn binding arbitration. The board responded with a districtwide mailing explaining that to allow a third party to fashion a settlement would be to lose control over the district's finances.

Shortly after the strike began, the board obtained an injunction ordering the teachers to return to their classrooms. Superior Court Judge Sherwin D. Lester, who issued the injunction, mounted a judicial offensive, jailing some teachers and imposing heavy fines on others. When the teachers defied his order, he issued a stronger one last Monday that negotiators for both sides said hastened the settlement: If the teachers did not return, he said, they would lose their jobs. A day later, the strike was over.

'Economic Welfare' at Stake

"It was worth striking. Our economic welfare and our credibility as a bargaining unit were at stake," Michael Valmoro, a member of the union's bargaining team, said after the settlement was overwhelmingly ratified. "At stake here was the principle as to how an equitable solution would be reached. We had warned the board that we felt we weren't being treated as equal partners in the negotiation."

Ira Gissen, president of the board, lamented that employees would have to be laid off and programs eliminated.

"We'll have to cut from top to bottom. We'll just be paying more money to fewer people," Mr. Gissen said, adding that nontenured teachers, administrators, secretaries, and aides would be subject to layoffs. Mr. Gissen said the board and school administrators would decide which programs to eliminate or alter.

The board maintained publicly throughout 11 months of negotiations and the 19 days of the the strike that economics was the only issue. But some school-board members had acknowledged privately, and the teachers' representatives had said loudly, that more than money was riding on the outcome.

Neighboring Communities

Board members from neighboring communities, many of whom will begin similar negotiations later this year, watched intently, believing that the showdown in Teaneck would offer a hint of what to expect of their teachers.

Both sides claimed victory after the dispute had ended. The complex formula used to determine the salary package eases the board's cash-flow problems by phasing in each year's raise over two semesters. Mr. Gissen, referring to the formula developed by a state mediator, said: "This is becoming a popular way to do it. Speaking frankly, it's a way of giving the union big numbers while being easier on the taxpayers."

At the ratification meeting, however, the teachers were jubilant even though their salary increases will not cover the pay they lost during the strike. They sang upbeat songs and held hands and danced. They sobered, however, when their chief negotiator, Robert Arzt, addressed them.

"This [settlement] is not as great as you would have wanted, but it's a hell of a lot better than we might have done," Mr. Arzt said. "We have shown the board of education it cannot dictate to us the terms of an agreement. This strike was for more than one contract."

Vol. 02, Issue 06

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