St. Louis teachers planning to strike Jan. 19

Friday, January 7, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- Barring resolution of a contract dispute, St. Louis teachers plan to go on strike Jan. 19, ignoring a state law forbidding a walkout, the teachers' union said Thursday.

Negotiators for St. Louis Teachers and School Related Personnel Union Local 420 will continue to meet with school district representatives in an effort to avert the walkout, which would be the fourth in the state's largest school district since 1973.

Asked about a strike in the face of the state law prohibiting it, Local 420 president Mary Armstrong said, "I go back to the basis of which this country was founded. It's called civil disobedience."

Jim Hetlage, an attorney for the school board, said the two sides have been talking since about Christmas.

"We thought we were making progress," Hetlage said. "We're surprised by this decision."

Teachers in the 32,000-student district have worked without a contract since July. The union authorized a strike last month by a 1,427-225 vote. The district has 3,450 teachers, but union membership is not mandatory and about 51 percent of teachers are members of Local 420, Armstrong said. The union also represents teachers' aides, clerical workers and others.

While state law bars teacher strikes, it is vague about how that law is enforced. But Hetlage said the strike would violate board of education policy.

Teachers, Hetlage said, could face discipline "that could go up to and include discharge." The district also could seek a court order forcing the teachers to return to work, Hetlage said. He refused to speculate on what the district would do if the strike takes place.

The board in October offered to increase teacher salaries and bring them in line with five affluent suburban districts, a move that would cost the financially strapped district an estimated $22 million over four years.

A teacher who started this year with a bachelor's degree and now earns $31,200 would get a raise of nearly $8,000 over the four-year contract. But Armstrong said teachers with more experience would not benefit as much.

Armstrong listed several issues needing resolution. Improved medical benefits was the top priority, she said, followed in order by salary, length of school day and year, and personal days.

St. Louis teachers walked off for 28 days in 1973, 56 days in 1979 and four days in 1983. In each case, courts ordered teachers back to the classroom.

Teachers gave up sick days and bereavement leave last year to help the district cut costs, and would like them resumed. Armstrong also has said budget constraints cut counselor and social worker positions and closed alternative schools, all of which are needed to enforce discipline and provide a good learning environment.

In addition to the potential strike, the district has been beset by other problems, including infighting among board members and continuing debt. The district is millions of dollars in debt even though a New York-based turnaround firm ran it for a year, a term that ended June 30.

Armstrong said the district continues to be beset by disciplinary problems with students, forcing teachers to spend too much time policing and not enough time teaching.

"The district is not listening to us," Armstrong said. "We're the ones on the front line."

St. Louis teachers walked off for 28 days in 1973, 56 days in 1979 and four days in 1983. In each case, courts ordered teachers back to the classroom.

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