They say they were exercising their democratic rights in the American tradition by walking off the job the week after terrorists attacked the United States. Yet teachers in Granite City, Ill., are being criticized by some community members for striking during a national emergency.
More than 400 members of the Granite City Federation of Teachers voted to strike Sept. 12 and joined the picket lines Sept. 17 after negotiations between union representatives and school administrators broke down, according to Dave Comerford, a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the union’s state counterpart.
The parties could not agree on a health-care policy, salary increases, or the length of the new contract, he said. The previous, three-year agreement expired Sept. 12.
“I told the local press that for the first time in my nine years as superintendent, I was ashamed of a group of teachers,” Steven M. Bayen, the Granite City schools chief, said last week. “What difference does it make if you strike now or in two weeks? Nobody was not getting paid.”
But the teachers contend they took action at the right time, for the right reasons.
“This is not a decision we made lightly,” Mr. Comerford said, adding that war veterans are among the ranks. “There isn’t a teacher here that doesn’t feel for the families of the victims in this terrible tragedy. But there comes a point when we say, ‘This is a democracy; we have a right to demonstrate in the workplace.’ ”
Regardless of the teachers’ actions, administrators had threatened to shut down all 11 schools in the 7,200- student district on Sept. 17 and 18 to give the school board time to contemplate any offers made in a weekend bargaining session, Mr. Comerford said. School administrators were forcing a strike, he contended.
The Granite City school board has put forth a plan that would require teachers to pay for a portion of the health insurance provided to employees’ dependents, a benefit that is currently free, Superintendent Bayen said.
Teachers want to keep the current system intact, and have taken pay cuts over the years to ensure that the perquisite remains as is, said Mr. Comerford of the IFT, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
The two sides are also wrangling over salaries.
Administrators have offered a yearlong contract and a 3 percent raise. The teachers have suggested a two-year contract with a 4 percent raise the first year and a 3.5 percent raise the second.
A federal mediator has stepped into the negotiations, but no further talks had been scheduled as of press time last week, the superintendent said. The last strike occurring in Granite City lasted 11 days in 1987.
Meanwhile, the superintendent continues to field telephone calls from union supporters and detractors. Of the nearly 90 or so conversations he has had with constituents, about half approve of the decision to strike during the current national situation, Mr. Bayen said.
Local residents seem to be split on the issue, agreed Michelle Daily, the president of the Worthen Elementary School PTA.
“The terrorists want us to stop living,” Ms. Daily said. “My feeling is that we need to move on.”