Teaching Profession

Teacher Walkout in Buffalo Leads Season of Unrest

By Julie Blair — September 13, 2000 5 min read
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Teachers in Buffalo, N.Y., defied state law last week by staging their first strike in 24 years, while educators in Philadelphia remained in class, poised for a walkout.

Those are just two of the big-city districts that have been hit by labor unrest this fall, as administrators and union leaders in several major school systems scramble to craft new contract agreements. Negotiations in Boston and Los Angeles remain contentious. Teachers in Cleveland and Denver threatened to strike, but settled their contracts at the 11th hour.

Meanwhile, strikes were also occurring in a few smaller districts, including Hamilton Township, N.J.; Punxsutawney, Pa.; and Richmond Heights, Ohio.

One expert attributed the unrest in part to the humming economy. The unions are acutely aware that government coffers are filled and that demand is high for qualified educators, said Bruce S. Cooper, a professor of economics at Fordham University in New York City.

“Teachers are feeling like they are not sharing in the goodies,” Mr. Cooper said.

Union leaders also are trying to take a bigger role in setting school policies and to energize their young rank-and-file members, Mr. Cooper said.

In Buffalo, some 4,000 teachers went on strike Sept. 7, giving 47,000 students an extra day of summer vacation.

“After a year and a half of negotiations that have not gotten anywhere, ... teachers decided the only thing left to do was to go out on strike,” said Philip Rumore, the president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

Teacher strikes in New York state are illegal under what is known as the Taylor Law. The state penalizes teachers by withholding two days’ pay for each day of school missed.

So the BTF, an affiliate of the National Education Association, is instituting a so-called rotating strike to minimize the financial effects.

All teachers stayed home on what would have been the second day of school, Sept. 7, but returned to school Sept. 8, as a token of good faith, Mr. Rumore said. Beginning next week, however, teachers were expected to attend school for four days; on the fifth day, teachers in selected schools would strike for one day. Then all teachers would work for another four days.

The pattern would continue with walkouts every fifth day at some schools, on a rotating basis."We’re disappointed and a little surprised,” J. Andrew Maddigan, a spokesman for the district, said of the union’s decision. “We felt the negotiations had been moving along.”

Buffalo’s teachers have been working without a contract for more than a year. The union shot down a proposal by the school district Sept. 6 that would have given teachers a 14 percent raise over four years, extended the academic year, and granted principals more leeway in choosing their staffs.

The union hopes to garner larger salary increases than those offered by the district, as well as smaller class sizes.

‘The Gun Is Loaded’

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, teachers were awaiting word from their union’s president late last week whether to begin a walkout, said Barbara Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Under state law, Ted Kirsch, the president of the 21,000-member PFT, must give district officials 48 hours’ notice before striking, Ms. Goodman said. He had not done so at press time last Friday.

“While a strike is extremely damaging, it is the absolute last-ditch effort to get a contract,” Ms. Goodman said. “The gun is loaded, and the bullets are in the chamber.”

The union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, rejected a contract offered last month by the 210,000-student district that would have extended the school day and the academic year. It also included a pay-for-performance initiative and a policy that would have given principals more say in teacher job assignments.(“Philadelphia and Boston Facing Labor Unrest,” Sept. 6, 2000.)

The PFT is demanding higher salaries, smaller class sizes, and better school facilities.

Union members voted unanimously Sept. 5 to authorize a strike, but Mr. Kirsch asked them to show up for work while negotiators continued their talks. The first day of classes was Sept. 7.

Meanwhile, a state court extended the union contract to Sept. 11.

School board President Pedro Ramos said the union’s vote was “not surprising.”

“Obviously, we are disappointed that we have not been able to get a definitive agreement in place,” Mr. Ramos said in a statement.

Talks were continuing as of press time.

The negotiations have been complicated by Act 46, a law passed by the Pennsylvania legislature in 1998 that allows the state to take over the district, the sixth largest in the nation. Such an action would be a last resort, but may be necessary if the district is plunged into chaos by a strike, said Tim Reeves, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican.

“We do not want to take over the Philadelphia school district,” Mr. Reeves said.

The best solution, he said, would come from local educators.

The last strike in Philadelphia was in 1981, when teachers were out of school for eight weeks, Ms. Goodman said.

Work to the Rule

In related news, teachers in Boston voted against a strike last week, but approved a motion that limits their work to activities specifically outlined in their contract, which expired Aug. 31. They also agreed to vote again on Oct. 11 on whether to strike indefinitely if a contract is not approved at that time.

Though Boston teachers started school Sept. 6, they limited their work to classroom instruction, athletics, and city-run after- school programs, in accordance with the union vote, said Edward Doherty, the president of the 6,000-member Boston Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Volunteer duties, such as serving on school committees, have been abandoned.

“People [in the union] are furious,” Mr. Doherty said in an interview. “The membership really believes that they’ve been stabbed in the back by the mayor and the superintendent.”

Negotiations between the 69,000-student school district and the union broke down earlier this month. The district proposed changing the way in which seniority affects teaching assignments and a salary increase of 9 percent over three years, a sum considered unacceptable by the union. (“Philadelphia and Boston Facing Labor Unrest,” Sept. 6, 2000.)

Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant said in an interview last Friday that the district’s offer was “very reasonable,” but he added that talks would continue.

“It’s too bad the union president is ratcheting up the rhetoric,” Mr. Payzant said in response to Mr. Doherty’s comments. “The only way to resolve this is to get back to the table.”

Salary issues are also at the heart of negotiations in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest district, where teachers have been working without a contract since June 30.

Members of the 43,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles will vote Sept. 22, 23, and 24 on whether to authorize a strike, said Steve Blazak, a union spokesman.

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