THE L.A. TEACHERS' LABOR DISPUTE : Informal Talks Held as Strike Day Nears

Times Education Writer

Officials of the Los Angeles Unified School district and the local teachers' union held informal talks Wednesday in hopes of reaching a last-minute contract settlement and avoiding a strike scheduled for Monday, both sides reported.

United Teachers-Los Angeles President Wayne Johnson said discussions with district representatives over the telephone and in a brief face-to-face meeting Wednesday centered on setting up subsequent meetings, possibly today, and not about substantive issues.

"There is some possibility that something productive may happen," Johnson said. But he estimated that the chances of a strike are still "90%."

Diana Munatones, a district spokeswoman, described the discussions as "close contacts with UTLA representatives" and that those contacts were held "on a variety of levels."

School board member Jackie Goldberg said she was glad informal talks had begun and hoped that today would yield some progress. "The appropriate scurrying is going on," she said. UTLA's Johnson spoke to reporters before meeting with union representatives at union headquarters on West 3rd Street near downtown. The 300 or so representatives gave him a standing ovation and loudly applauded his listing of union bargaining positions. The group also unanimously endorsed the board of directors' decision to walk out Monday.

Many of the teachers wore large buttons showing the face of district Supt. Leonard Britton crossed with a red slash. Other buttons proclaimed "I Don't Want to Strike, But I Will."

Both sides are preparing for what could be the first teacher strike in 19 years in the nation's second-largest school system. District officials have pledged to keep schools open using substitute teachers and administrators in the classrooms. The union--which represents 32,000 teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians--hopes to shut the system down.

Meanwhile, fearing a court battle on the legality of a strike, the union may be reversing its previous decision that would have allowed a state fact-finder extra time to issue her report on the dispute.

Under state law, the union could be forbidden to strike before the fact-finder's recommendations are issued and, as a result, union leaders could face fines and jail terms if the district seeks and wins a back-to-work order based on that argument. Union officials charged that Britton is trying to corner them into a strike two weeks earlier than they originally planned because he wants such a court order. District officials strongly deny such a motive.

Timing of Report

The fact-finder, Geraldine Randall, said the union and the district gave her permission to issue her expected report on the merits of the two sides' bargaining positions next Wednesday.

Union negotiator John Britz said the union may change its mind about the report's timing as a result of Britton's order earlier this week that teachers must turn in grades by Monday or risk withholding of the entire previous month's pay.

As a result of that order, the union moved up its strike date from May 30 to Monday.

Randall said she could have her report ready by Monday if the union insists.

The union is asking for a 21% pay increase over two years; the district is offering 21.5% over three years. The two sides also disagree on non-monetary issues, including some involving teachers' roles in school decision-making.

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