Teaching Profession

Few Teachers’ Strikes Mark U.S. Landscape

By Bess Keller — October 08, 2004 4 min read
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Since the start of the school year, teachers have gone on strike in only a few districts. But the relative labor peace is no sign that negotiations have been easy.

Around the country, as districts continue to feel the squeeze between tight state budgets and soaring health costs, teacher labor talks have hung up on who will pay for the care. And in three of the largest districts, negotiators have grappled for months with proposed changes to the ways schools would be run, along with the usual concerns of pay and benefits.

The most dramatic show of concern over health care erupted last week in Kentucky, when teachers statewide protested a proposal they say will cost them dearly. More than 20 of Kentucky’s 176 districts shut schools in response to the action by the 36,000-member Kentucky Education Association, which rallied educators on Sept. 27.

Members of the National Education Association affiliate, along with other public employees who participate in the current state health-insurance plan, say the proposed changes, designed to control costs, would jack up the expense for many in the form of higher premiums, deductibles, and out-of-pocket expenses.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican, announced that he would call a special legislative session this week to deal with the health-insurance issue.

Meanwhile, negotiators for the 1.1 million-student New York City schools and the United Federation of Teachers, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate, are not pointing to progress on a new contract. The UFT has rejected the modest pay increases and the overhaul of contract rules proposed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein.

Mr. Bloomberg, a Republican, got the talks off to a contentious start when he said in February that the 200-plus pages of the existing contract should be scrapped in favor of an eight-page document.

In the Los Angeles Unified district, with 723,000 students, there’s been no contract agreement for this school year, even though in June Superintendent Roy Romer dropped previous demands that teachers pay more of their health-care costs.

Teacher Assignment at Issue

John Perez, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which is affiliated with both the NEA and the AFT, said in a Sept. 7 memo published on the union’s Web site that a host of issues remain on the table, including a salary increase.

Negotiations also drag on in Philadelphia, where the city-state “reform commission” that governs the district asked teachers to work longer days, contribute up to 2 percent of their paychecks for health insurance, and—perhaps most controversial—give up many of the seniority rights used to determine how teachers are assigned to schools.

In low-performing schools, principals could replace entire staffs. In a school showing higher achievement, a committee including the principal and teachers would make hiring choices without regard to seniority. (“Collective Bargaining Bumping Up Against No Child Left Behind Law,” Sept. 8, 2004.)

The sides agreed last week to extend the current contract through Oct. 10 in hopes of a settlement by then. Under the legislation that gave the state control of the 185,000-student Philadelphia district, teachers are forbidden to strike, and the governing panel has the right to impose a contract.

“Negotiators certainly have been whittling down the massive proposals the district presented in the summer,” Hal Moss, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate, said last week. “Unfortunately, [the proposals that remain] are still rather punitive.”

In Portland, Ore., negotiators are struggling to reach agreement on pay and health insurance, among other issues. Teachers and administrators are under pressure to seal a contract before a Nov. 2 vote that could leave the 53,000-student district $43 million—11 percent—in the hole should voters decide to repeal a new, temporary income tax. Two years ago, when financial woes almost forced the district to shorten the school year, employee health-insurance costs were targeted for overhaul. They are the highest in the area, though the salaries of Portland teachers are relatively low.

“In terms of total compensation, we have more funds to provide our teachers this year,” said Julia Brim-Edwards, a board chairwoman on the negotiating team.

One urban district that has settled on a contract this month is Denver. Teachers accepted a 1 percent increase in base pay along with education and longevity raises. The one-year pact also gives each teacher $39 a month to help with health-care costs.

So far this school year, the nea has tallied three teachers’ strikes among local affiliates, all in small Pennsylvania districts: Abington Heights, Old Forge, and Richland. This time last year, the union counted seven strikes, and the year before that, 17, some of which may have involved unions of teachers’ aides or support personnel. No AFT teachers’ locals are currently striking.

Pennsylvania Walkouts

Many labor experts have noted a long-term trend away from teachers’ strikes since states started granting bargaining rights to teachers in 1968. Among the contributing factors, they say, are greater experience on both sides of the negotiating table, state laws prohibiting strikes or providing more alternatives to them, and interest in collaborative approaches to bargaining, which some say are better suited to solving student-achievement problems.

“From my perspective, what I see is, whether [the number of strikes] is up or down, it’s always very rare,” said Carolyn York, who manages collective bargaining and compensation for the NEA, which has roughly 14,000 locals.

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