Why public-school teachers are finding it easier to strike

Teachers picketing in front of closed public schools have become almost a routine part of the American political landscape each September. But there are subtle shifts in this fall's teacher strikes -- now mostly settled -- that mark controversies larger than the local issues under contention. These shifts are in political climate and public sympathy.

The upshot: Strikes are becoming more likely and less risky for teachers.

The major issues in teacher strikes are usually cost-of-living raises -- few teacher salaries have kept pace with inflation -- and job security as school districts find the only way to afford raises is to cut back the number of jobs.

In Philadelphia -- scene of the biggest strike this fall, where 22,000 teachers held out for three weeks chiefly for fewer layoffs -- community sympathy appears to have softened toward the strike. The principal of one strike-bound elementary school noted concern among parents but nothing of the animosity toward the teachers he had witnessed in Philadelphia's 1978 strike.

In fact, reports the National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers' union, not a single arrest among its members has been recorded so far his fall -- and during the second week of September it had 47 strikes in progress, mostly in states where strikes by public employees are illegal.

In any local teachers' strike, spokesmen on both sides of the picket lines say, community opinion is key to its effectiveness. It can, according to Fay Ford of the NEA, be the determining factor in whether antistrike laws or injunctions are enforced.

A teacher strike "is not an economic battle," says Myron Lieberman, a negotiations consultant and an expert in teacher activism. "It is a political battle. It is a battle to control public opinion at the decisive moment." Moreover, he observes, it is a battle in which the union has the advantage because it controls the timing of a strike.

To use this timing effectively, a union strike task force carries a "heavy communications component," explains Paul Solomon, director of the Washington-based American Association of School Administrators (AASA). Thus, school districts sometimes appeal to the AASA -- not for negotiating help, but for public relations expertise.

In the political realm, observers in the education field note, the climate favors greater teacher clout. The key to just how much clout, Mr. Lieberman believes, will be the outcome of the presidential election.

The pivotal issue is collective bargaining, which means teachers as a group can veto a contract they are offered. In practice, it means that negotiations often come to a stalement, precipitating a strike.

Roughly two-thirds of the states now have collective bargaining laws. "It is an era that has arrived," notes Ken Hall, a negotiations consultant in California.

Moreover, the possibility of a new federal collective bargaining policy looms ahead -- one that would attach strings to federal funds for states and cities. Ronald Reagan vetoed two collective-bargaining rights bills as governor of California and appears to take a similar position as a presidential hopeful. President Carter, while he will not actively push such a policy, has said he will sign one if it reaches his desk.

The Nea supports the idea of tying federal funds to collective bargaining rights. And one-seventh of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention this year were NEA members, Lieberman notes.

Meanwhile, a growing concern of education officials, brought on by the rise of unionism among teachers, is the loss of local control of schools.

This is one reason, Mr. Solomon says, that his association opposes binding aribitration. Often put forward by unions as a method of avoiding stalemated collective bargaining talks, binding arbitration is considered one systematic way to avert strikes.

But it also takes power from the hands of a locally elected school board and gives it to an arbiter who is not responsible to the community. "The school board is answerable to a constituency," Solomon says, and hence should hold sway over contract-making decisions.

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