Portland teachers ratify pact

A near-certain Portland teachers strike was averted Feb. 25, thanks to the eleventh-hour intervention of officials from the City of Portland and Multnomah County. Even as 3,500 of the Portland Association of Teachers' (PAT) 3,800 members were assembling for a strike vote at the Oregon Convention Center, negotiators were putting the final details together on a settlement.

As they waited for word from the negotiating table, teachers were entertained by a cowboy poet and a group of singers. But patience wore thin and members demanded a strike vote. The vote was taken: Less than a dozen teachers stood up to oppose a strike.

"It took my breath away," said PAT President Ann Nice. The sense of unity was profound, she said. About 130 union worksite organizers had worked for months to explain the bargaining situation to members. In one-on-one meetings with every member, they counted 95 percent support for the strike in the days leading up to the vote.

More than anything, teachers' resolve was solidified by the administration's behavior in negotiations. Through 10 months of negotiations, the administration made almost no concession from its initial proposal: a pay cut for teachers, making teachers pay out-of-pocket for health care cost increases, and eliminating hard-fought and highly-valued workplace rights, like teachers having a say in transfer decisions. "It wasn't very smart bargaining on their part, when they had nothing to offer financially," Nice said.

The breakthrough came when the union bargaining team came up with the idea of trying to restore the school year, which under the district's proposal, was due to be cut 24 days. PAT said teachers would work 10 days for free if the school board and local governments could arrange to restore funding for the remainder of the school year.

In effect, it would be an agreement, at a time of severe budget crisis, to take a temporary 5 percent pay cut. But by framing it as 10 days free labor, Nice said, the union was able to dramatize the extent of the sacrifice, buying good will and making it that much harder politically for the district to justify its continued refusals to compromise.

"PAT members really hated to see me on TV announcing that we were volunteering to actually work for free," Nice said. "They felt that it devalued them and their profession .... We did it so the kids could have a full school year, and maybe we'll be out of Doonesbury and the national papers," Nice said.

Portland Mayor Vera Katz was initially reluctant to step forward with a promise of additional funds. But after City Commissioners Eric Sten, Randy Leonard and Dan Saltzman said they would support temporary additional taxes on businesses, Katz and County Chair Diane Linn stepped in and brokered a deal.

City and county officials agreed to come up with the funds to restore the year, but school administrators still had to be strong-armed into dropping their non-economic demands, which PAT negotiators had made it clear would have to be part of the deal. When Katz told district negotiators the money was contingent on a deal, they caved, dropping their non-economic demands.

The new contract runs through June 30, 2004. It includes a one-year-only 5 percent pay cut during this school year, followed by a 0.5 percent increase (over current salary) in July 2003 and a 0.5 percent increase in January 2004. In the contract's final six months, teacher salary will range from $29,013 to $60,977, depending on education and experience. To keep cost increases in check, a six-person committee will make modifications to the health plan. The committee will have two representatives from the union, two from the district and one each from the city and county. All other contract language remains the same. A contract administration committee will have interim discussions to see if a compromise can be reached on the contentious issue of teacher transfer rights.

On Feb. 28, PAT took the agreement back to members at each work site. They approved the contract in secret ballots counted March 3.

"It's a victory for this community, and especially for Portland kids," Nice said.

Several wrinkles may yet jeopardize the settlement. Business opposition to the new temporary business taxes could result in their referral to voters, making the outcome uncertain. And a plan by conservative rural state legislators to have the state seize the new revenues to divide them with rural districts has inflamed urban-rural political tensions. Most of those conservative lawmakers opposed Ballot Measure 28 in January, which would have provided statewide funding.

But from the union's standpoint, the deal is a deal. The district has signed it, and it will be up to the district and its allies to see that the funds are found. PAT is likely to be active in backing any measure aimed at restoring funding to schools.

March 7, 2003 issue

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