'The Best of the Worst'- Portland Teachers Yield to Budget Squeeze; Accept Two Weeks Work Without Pay

Teachers in Oregon's largest district took two historic votes within a week of each other, first to authorize a strike, then days later to approve a contract with huge concessions. Portland teachers, who have never gone on strike, overwhelmingly approved a new contract that requires teachers to work two weeks this year without pay.

Bargaining took place in a gloomy atmosphere of statewide budgetary collapse, with Oregon pacing the nation in unemployment as well as "food insecurity" and other hunger indicators. Though two years ago the legislature refunded to taxpayers "surplus" tax collections, Oregon now faces spiraling budget shortfalls and matching cuts to education and social services.

BATTLING OVER HEALTH CARE

The Portland Association of Teachers (NEA) faced off with a district determined to save money, primarily by freezing wages and passing health care costs on to union members. The union adopted a strategy of accepting limits on raises, but refusing to allow a cap on health care costs.

The district would have none of it, citing local commercial demands to rein in spending on health care. Superintendent Jim Scherzinger told The Oregonian, "We want to be able to give the assurance to the business community that we would have cost control."

Working without a contract, the union headed for a March showdown. Teachers in different buildings participated in solidarity actions (buttons, matching shirts), letter writing, and rolling "work-to-rule" days. Hundreds of union members and supporters rallied at the state capital. Some teachers inexperienced with union militancy felt uncomfortable limiting work hours or walking in and out of buildings, but as the campaign grew members developed a sense of union power.

Discomfort gave way to outrage, as the district continued to insist on capping health care. In previous contracts, teachers had swapped pay raises for complete health care coverage, and they feared that once the district won a cap, health care costs would rapidly swing to teachers' wallets.

Middle school math teacher Steve Palumbo told The Oregonian, "We didn't become teachers to become rich. But we do believe that if we're ill or somebody in our family needs care, that care is going to be there. It's just fundamental."

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FEW SUPPORTERS

As the strike vote loomed, PAT found itself with few supporters. Politicians naturally decried a potential strike, expressing new-found concern for "our children, our future."

Most troubling, parent groups which had sprung up to support schools announced their opposition to a strike. Meanwhile state budget forecasts grew worse by the week, and the district announced plans to slash up to 24 school days off an already truncated calendar.

In late February, with no visible movement at the bargaining table, Portland teachers voted to strike at a mass meeting.

But as they were voting, union leaders were meeting in private with district officials to offer a deal: ten days worked for free and a 5% pay cut. In exchange, city and county officials said they would try to raise more money for schools through taxes.

Some teachers expressed shock at the turn of events. After all, the offer to work for two weeks without pay was never even discussed at any union meeting. One educator, Sandra Childs, circulated a letter calling for a mass meeting to debate the contract proposal. The union leadership did not respond to that request.

Even those concerned with the lack of transparency supported the contract, believing that it represented the "best of the worst," as one teacher put it. In private ballot teachers ratified the contract by a 9-1 ratio.

Michael Ames Connor is member/organizer with the Portland State University Faculty Association/AFT 3571.