The Los Angeles teachers union answered the school district's opening contract proposal Sunday with a demand for a 21% pay raise and the threat of a strike.
At a rally on the campus of Hamilton High School, union officials derided interim Supt. Ramon C. Cortines' offer of a 6% raise with extra pay for teachers whose schools improve student performance on the annual Stanford 9 test.
Although Cortines has characterized his proposal as an incentive plan, not merit pay, United Teachers-Los Angeles President Day Higuchi called it a "pointless merit pay scheme" that amounted to an assault on teachers.
The union asked for a 6% raise retroactive to last July 1, and another 15% raise to take effect this July 1. The union also asked for increased health benefits, a cut in the number of steps to top salaries and equal benefits for retirees.
After last week's march of several thousand UTLA members, Higuchi said, the union will "keep shaking the ground with our feet till the board at 450 N. Grand starts cracking and crumbling."
And, after several months of generally cordial relations with Cortines, Higuchi took off the gloves, calling the interim superintendent "Go Away" Ray for what he termed Cortines' dismissive attitude toward teachers.
"After the '89 strike we had a slogan, 'We walked, we won, we're still not done,' " Higuchi said. "In 2000 our message is, 'And we'll do it again if we have to!' "
The union proposal sets the stage for a long, difficult negotiation, which could begin this month if the Board of Education, as expected, adopts the district's opening proposal April 11. The teachers' current three-year contract expires June 30, the day before Cortines is scheduled to be replaced by a permanent superintendent who has not yet been named.
Cortines and Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller, who have been jointly running the district since the ouster of former Supt. Ruben Zacarias, opened with what they hoped would be a watershed contract proposal. Besides establishing an accountability system with incentive pay, it would restore full power of teacher assignments to principals, eliminate extra pay for bilingual credentials, require teachers to spend more time on campus, and provide extra pay for advanced teacher studies only if they are in line with district instructional needs.
"I have been teaching 11 years, and I have never seen a contract [proposal] like this before," said Janette Gembitz, one of a small group of teachers at Sunday's rally handing out literature that was critical of the union leaders. She said she thinks union leaders have been too weak at the bargaining table.
Gembitz said she hopes there will be a strike.
"People are angry," she said. The teachers union struck in 1969 and 1989, but did not walk out during the early 1990s when the state budget crisis wiped out all their gains from 1989, forcing the union to accept pay cuts totaling 10%.
Those cuts were eventually restored, but the union contends that it has never caught up and says its members are now in the bottom third of Los Angeles County schoolteacher salaries.
A spokesman for the union said a 21% pay increase would raise the pay of a 5-year credentialed teacher from $38,668 to $46,788, which would be at the top of the countywide pay scale.
To improve working conditions, the union also is asking for a cap on class size in all grades and subjects, a uniform discipline code, the right to file grievances over school safety and cleanliness, and the lack of textbooks and supplies.
Other demands would limit the duties of beginning teachers and require art and music programs, as well as funding for the hiring of nurses, psychologists and other services sometimes lacking in year-round schools.
Instead of merit pay, the union is asking that the district institute its long-standing proposal for peer assistance and review, which would put teachers in charge of judging each other's performance