Better bargaining results in fewer US teacher strikes. Recent pay increases in many districts also a major factor

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Teacher strikes are becoming almost as rare as one-room schoolhouses. ``Strikes have been down the last couple years,'' says Howard Carroll, spokesman for the nation's largest teacher union, the National Education Association.

And most of the walkouts are not in the largest cities.

``Even in the states where we have strikes, there's a small amount of faculty involved,'' says Scott Treibitz of the rival American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Seven years ago, the union had 37 locals on strike; this year, it has three so far.

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Overall, for every four teacher walkouts in the 1979-80 school year, only one strike occurred in 1985.

After some contract settlements were reached over the weekend, some 6,100 teachers remained on strike Monday in seven states. Almost 100,000 students were affected. Public school teachers were on strike in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and Massachusetts.

So far this year, the strike involving the largest number of students is in Port Huron, Mich., where 11,300 pupils remain out of school. A court hearing was scheduled for today on a back-to-work order requested by Port Huron school officials.

A potentially larger strike in Indianapolis was averted last week, with a settlement calling for a 5 percent increase in salary and retirement payments. The system's approximately 3,000 teachers still have to vote on the agreement.

But Boston's 4,400 teachers are to take a strike vote Thursday. The initial negotiating session between teacher representatives and officials of the 58,000-pupil school system broke up Sunday night after only 10 minutes at the bargaining table.

The largest strike in terms of teachers so far is in Alton, Ill., where 775 teachers have walked out.

The number of teacher strikes has been going down, say union and school board officials, chiefly because teacher salaries are improving and the bargaining process has become more sophisticated.

In the past three years, teacher salaries shot up an average of 23 percent, according to a study by the AFT. But adjusted for inflation, pay is still 10 percent below the average of 1973.

As teacher unionization has taken root and public concern about education quality has spread, union locals and school boards have become better bargainers -- understanding each other's problems and seeking common goals in many cases.

One reason for the better understanding is that community support for public schools is no longer automatic, says Nellie Weil, president of the National School Boards Association.

Since less than 3 out of 10 adults have children in public schools these days, ``boards and teachers . . . are having to work together for their own greater interest,'' she explains.

The combination of these factors is changing the issues at the bargaining table. Instead of striking over pay alone, teachers are increasingly putting professional-type issues at the top of their agenda.

In Port Huron, for example, teachers walked out Sept. 2 because they would not accept a proposed three-year contract. The district has offered a 6 percent-a-year raise, but the most difficult issue to be resolved is class size.

``We told the district: The money's fine, but we don't buy this [other] issue,'' says Don Aikins, a high school English teacher and spokesman for the Port Huron teachers union. The teachers want class sizes reduced. Port Huron school Superintendent Larry J. Moeller says class size will drop anyway because of population shifts.

Pay remains a concern, of course. In the teachers' strike at Bethel Park, Pa., talks have been deadlocked over changes the administration wants to make in the length of the school day, grading policies, and the district's unique system of paying furloughed teachers to be substitute teachers.

``Pay? We have spent two minutes discussing [it],'' grumbles Jerry Petrarca, president of the local teachers union. ``We've spent the rest of the time on these issues.''

``Those issues are not the reason we have a strike,'' adds school Superintendent Rob MacNaughton. ``The big issue is money.''

Despite these isolated strikes, teacher unions and school boards alike applaud the push for school reform that has increased the flow of tax money to the public schools.

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