Sandy school district out to bust teachers union

As of press time, 216 teachers were out on strike, and over 4,000 schoolchildren and their parents were waiting to go back to school, but at the Oregon Trail School District in Sandy, Boring and Welches, Oregon, management was playing games.

Oregon law gives public employees like teachers the right to a union, just as private sector employees have. And public employers, such as school districts, are required to negotiate “in good faith” a labor agreement with the union.

At Oregon Trail, however, all indications are that management is more interested in teaching the teachers’ union a lesson than in reaching an agreement that would keep the schools open.

Bargaining was going poorly before December 2004, when the two sides entered mediation. Then it got worse. The district brought in Salem attorney Bruce Zagar, a longtime associate of union foe Steve Goldschmidt, who was terminated as head of human resources at Portland Public Schools. Zagar was unavailable to meet for a full two months. When he finally met with the Oregon Education Association, union negotiators said it was like talking to a stone wall. The district’s previous position had failed to produce an agreement; now it made even more demands.

Bargaining went like this: Management offered very little improvement economically, and at the same time demanded more than 20 cuts or changes to contract language that the union fought previously to win — clauses governing how teachers are evaluated, use of seniority in layoff and recall, and grievance procedures. When the union offered compromise positions, management reiterated its original position, over and over and over.

Teachers felt they had no choice but to strike, when after a year and a half of unsuccessful contract bargaining (and one whole year working without a contract) management said it was no longer willing to meet, and imposed the terms of its own proposal Aug. 25 without the consent of the teachers.

Mike Cosper, a 6th grade science teacher at Cedar Ridge Middle School in Sandy, called that “hugely insulting.” Cosper, who is president of the Wy’East Education Association, the local affiliate of the statewide Oregon Education Association (OEA), said there’s no doubt in his mind that the district is trying to bust the union.

So, after an unsuccessful mediation session that lasted until 4:45 a.m., teachers struck Oct. 25.

Sandy teachers had struck once before, for seven days, in 1997.

After the current strike began, the district filed an “unfair labor practice” charge against the union before the Oregon Employment Relations Board. The charge alleges that the union is striking over “permissive subjects of bargaining,” in other words, things it’s not allowed to strike over according to the Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act. OEA says the charge is without merit, and has filed a charge of its own against the district for “bad faith bargaining.”

On Oct. 28, four days into the strike, the two sides took part in six hours of mediation, in which management and union bargaining teams met in separate rooms, with a professional mediator shuttling back and forth between them. The teachers union sent the district bargaining team two detailed settlement proposals, offering basically to accept management’s economic position — and keep the contract language the district had agreed to in the previous contract. Management’s response: “That does not satisfy the district’s concerns.” No details, no counter-offer. At the end of the day, asked to come up with a proposal of their own, management sent the mediator back with a one-page sheet and instructions not to change any wording on it. It said: “Article 12, Employee Relations — Delete ‘i.e.’ ”

“Delete i.e.,” the bargaining equivalent of an upraised middle finger, sums up the district’s stance: a willingness to keep the schools closed until the union capitulates.

As of press time, the strike had been under way eight days. A mediation session was scheduled for Nov. 2.

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