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Labor Disputes Heating Up in Urban Districts, After Respite

By Vaishali Honawar — April 04, 2006 3 min read
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After a lengthy period of relative harmony, teachers in several big-city districts are raising the stakes in collective bargaining battles.

Teachers in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., have threatened to go on strike later this month, following strike-authorization votes by union members in both districts late last month. In Detroit, meanwhile, 1,500 teachers in more than 50 schools called in sick March 22.

Union officials say the developments in the three cities illustrate teachers’ frustrations on a variety of issues, including pay and working conditions, as well as pressure from federal mandates under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“No teacher wants to go on strike,” said Alex Wohl, an American Federation of Teachers spokesman. “But at some point, when the level of miscommunication rises, it is all you have left.”

Oakland union officials complain that teacher pay, which averages $53,000, is one of the lowest in the San Francisco Bay area.

“Housing prices in Oakland are approaching San Francisco levels now. Our teachers can’t afford to live in our cities anymore,” said Ben Visnick, the president of the 3,200-member Oakland Education Association.

Teachers are also under unfair pressure because of NCLB mandates, he said. “We are being beaten up by the district when students aren’t achieving, although we work 10-hour days and weekends. The money is an issue, but a lot of this is about respect.”

The district has offered teachers raises of 2 percent, 2 percent, and 1.5 percent over three years. But the National Education Association affiliate is seeking slightly more in the second and third years of the contract.

Against the Trend

The school district is also asking teachers to pay a larger share of their health-insurance premiums.

District spokesman Alex Katz said the district, which went bankrupt in 2003 and is under state control, needs to show fiscal progress. But, he said, that would not be possible were officials to accede to union demands.

Joseph P. Graba, an education policy expert and the former dean of the graduate school of education at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., said the protests indicate that collective bargaining agreements are getting increasingly difficult as districts grapple with the rising costs of the labor-intensive education system.

“Health-care costs are soaking up a significant number of dollars, and the capacity [of districts] to provide raises gets squeezed,” he said.

The number of teacher strikes across the nation has remained low over the past several years, especially in large city districts, according to the NEA. Those that have taken to the picket lines have usually been teachers in rural or suburban schools.

This school year, according to the NEA, which tracks strikes among its locals, 20 strikes have taken place affecting fewer than 4,000 members—“a teensy, minuscule” proportion of the union’s 2.8 million members in 14,000 locals, said Carolyn York, the manager of collective bargaining and compensation for the national union.

In San Francisco, where the last teacher walkout occurred in 1979, 87 percent of the 2,500 teachers who participated in a strike vote on March 29 voted to authorize a strike, said Matthew Hardy, a spokesman for the United Educators of San Francisco, a merged AFT-NEA affiliate. The union has nearly 6,000 members.

The union has asked for a 10 percent raise and a one-time bonus of 1 percent; the district is offering 7.5 percent. Mr. Hardy said teachers also want to ensure safer schools by gaining classroom access to make 911 calls and getting training to deal with violence in classrooms.

San Francisco schools spokeswoman Lorna M. Ho said the district has made every effort to accommodate the unions’ demands, but even a 1 percent hike would translate into $2.7 million.

Detroit Protest

Janna Garrison, the president of the 10,000-member Detroit Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate, said her union did not sanction the sickout. But, she added, teachers felt “betrayed” when the district gave principals a salary adjustment, while asking teachers to give up five days of paid sick leave to help balance the budget.

“Then, to our dismay,” she said, “the district announced they would give principals a 10.6 adjustment. This is ridiculous.”

In a statement issued last week, Detroit schools Superintendent William Coleman said “nothing could be further from the truth.” The increases, he said, were not across-the-board raises, but adjustments that move some principals and vice principals closer to the middle of their pay range—a process similar to that used for members of the teachers’ union.

District officials say they will repay the teachers next year.

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week as Labor Disputes Heating Up in Urban Districts, After Respite

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