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Many L.A. Teachers Are Expected to Join 1-Day Class Boycott : Will Protest 7% Wage Offer; Discontent Over Pay, Conditions Appears Strong

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Times Education Writer

It has been 3 1/2 years since Los Angeles teachers resorted to a walkout to win an agreeable labor contract and 17 years since they were mad enough to strike.

A sizable percentage of the district’s 32,000 teachers, however, are now preparing for a one-day boycott of their classrooms on Thursday, chiefly in protest of a wage offer they consider too low.

“Last year when we were negotiating,” said United Teachers-Los Angeles President Wayne Johnson, “I got intense pressure to settle. (Teachers said) ‘Settle, settle, so I can get my money.’ We have not heard one word of that this year. . . . In fact, we’re getting the message ‘Don’t settle, hang tough.’ It’s a 180-degree difference.”

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Two weeks ago, several thousand teachers crammed into a courtyard outside the Los Angeles Unified School District’s central offices downtown for a rally to vocalize their anger over the contract talks, which began in June but ground to a halt in December. The current contract, which runs to 1988, allows re-negotiation each year of pay and certain other items. Negotiations resumed with the help of a state-appointed mediator last week but, according to Johnson, have not been fruitful.

The district is braced for the walkout and plans to keep all schools operating on Thursday with the help of substitute teachers. It has put all available administrators, counselors and other staff on notice that they may be assigned classroom duty for the day.

The union is asking for a 14% raise, which would be retroactive to the beginning of the school year. A district offer of 7% for all employees was soundly rejected in a recent vote by all but 4% of the union’s 20,000 members. Officials for the union, which bargains on behalf of all teachers, including non-members of the union, say most teachers consider winning a double-digit raise the top priority, although they also are asking for enforcement of class-size rules and expanded powers for teachers.

Teachers “have finally kind of hit the wall” over salaries, Johnson, a former Hamilton High School history instructor, said. “We’ve got people teaching 25, 30 years and making $35,000 or $37,000. They’ve come to the realization that they can no longer afford a middle-class life style, despite the fact they are well educated. So they want a decent settlement this year.”

Some would say that Los Angeles teachers haven’t done too badly in recent years, however. Starting pay four years ago was $13,700. But over the last three years, pay hikes averaging about 8%--somewhat higher than the inflation rate each year--have brought the entry-level salary up to $20,600 and top pay to $37,500.

“Teacher salaries are not bad at this point,” said board member Roberta Weintraub, “although they certainly need more (money) to make them truly professional.”

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The recent raises were made possible by a major education reform act passed in 1983 that reversed a long decline in state financing of public education. Some education officials, however, have said that the good times may be over, judging from the relatively meager increase in school financing proposed recently by Gov. George Deukmejian.

Last year, school districts were given a 5.49% cost-of-living increase from the state, which, because of the way the state finances schools, became available this year. In light of this state increase, Los Angeles Unified officials consider the proposed 7% raise generous. According to figures compiled by the California Teachers Assn., it is in line with the 7.2% statewide average raise accepted by teachers in 80% of the school districts that have settled contracts so far this year.

But Johnson said that because of a voter-imposed statewide spending limit that will take effect this year, teachers may not receive any raise at all next year. “So we’re essentially asking for a raise that will cover next year, too,” he said.

The union president says he is prepared to ask for a strike vote if a satisfactory agreement is not reached soon. Under state law concerning public employee unions, if mediation fails to produce a settlement, a state-appointed fact-finding panel must be called in to review the cases presented by each side and make a recommendation. A strike is legal only after the fact-finding has taken place.

The Los Angeles teachers’ last strike, in 1970, lasted five weeks. The last one-day walkout occurred in 1983 when more than half of the district’s teachers stayed away from classes to protest stalled contract talks.

A fact-finding panel’s recommendation is not binding, however. In Compton, where teachers have been without a contract since September, a review panel agreed with the teachers’ request for a 7% raise, but the district so far has stuck to its 5% offer. Compton teachers, the lowest paid in Los Angeles County, have gone on strike eight days in the last two months over the pay issue.

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Union officials in Los Angeles contend that the district could afford a double-digit raise for teachers by using some of the money that has been set aside for school construction. According to the union’s analysis, the district was able to spend $49 million on construction last year, but has budgeted $275 million for this year. “Our perception is there is money there to do all of the building they can possibly do and give teachers a double-digit raise,” Johnson said.

District spokesman Bill Rivera disputed the union’s figures. The district, he said, has state construction funds totaling $174 million--not $275 million, and he said the money can legally be used only for building or remodeling.

The only additional money that could be used for salaries, he said, is $44 million in an account that the board wants to use to speed purchases of land for school sites. Those funds could be used to pay for a one-time bonus, but Rivera said that union negotiators have rejected such offers, preferring a permanent raise.

Because the money may not be replenished next year, Rivera said, it would be unwise for the district to lock itself into spending any of it on a permanent salary increase. “It would only increase the height of the cliff we would have to jump off at the end of the year,” he said.

The district has proposed to pay for more than half of the $102-million cost of a 7% raise by using $55 million in lottery funds. But Rivera said that is risky, too, because lottery profits have declined over the last year. The district received $30.5 million in its first payment at the end of 1985, he noted, but the most recent check, for the period covering July through September, 1986, was only $12.5 million.

A number of recent studies confirm that teachers’ earnings have lagged behind other professions requiring a comparable amount of college education. The RAND Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession, in a report released in January, said that teachers’ salaries increased 65.4% from 1973 to 1981, while wages for college graduates in chemistry, engineering, marketing, liberal arts, economics and business administration rose from 75.3% to 99.3% over the same period.

Another study, by Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent research center, found that the buying power of teachers remains more than 5% below 1970 levels. Although the recent state-financed raises helped teacher wages regain some of the ground lost since 1970, the report said teachers financed a large part of the increase themselves because they work longer and more days now than they did 17 years ago.

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