Pending L.A. teachers’ strike contains lessons

When a fact-finding panel was unable to bring the Los Angeles Unified District and United Teachers of Los Angeles together, a strike seems likely on Jan. 10 (“Fact-finding at L.A. Unified,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 20). UTLA’s demands are familiar: higher salaries, smaller classes, more librarians and nurses.  The district claims it does not have the money to satisfy all of the demands.

But that argument is nothing new.  I participated in the first strike in 1970 by the newly formed UTLA and once again in 1989.  Both times the money was miraculously found at the last minute, but not before the commitment of UTLA was severely tested.

The strike I remember most vividly was in 1970, which lasted almost five weeks.  I walked the picket line and tightened my belt as it dragged on.  But the lack of a collective bargaining law led the courts to declare the agreement null and void.

It was only in 1975 when the Rodda Act became law that both sides had to bargain in good faith and agree to mediation.  As a result, the 1989 strike lasted only nine days and resulted in an historic three-year contract, including successive yearly salary increases of eight percent each and school site decision-making.

Once again, the LAUSD is claiming that it lacks the money.  It’s little wonder that UTLA doesn’t believe it.  If that is ever going to change, it has to begin with greater honesty on the part of the district.  Otherwise, the adversarial situation will continue unabated.

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4 Replies to “Pending L.A. teachers’ strike contains lessons”

  1. For govt employers and govt employees — including teachers — interest arbitration is a better alternative than striking to resolve economic disputes.

    The govt always has enough $ to pay more — just raise taxes. But, it does not follow that govt employees should always get more $/benefits or that taxpayers should always pay higher taxes to support the $/benefits.

    When the employer is the govt, political pressure rather than economic pressure will ultimately determine the outcome when govt employees strike. Generally speaking, wages/benefits should be determined by economics, not politics.

    If interest arbitration replaces striking, economic rationality will more-or-less replace politics as the determinant of employees’ wages/benefits.

    Also, interest arbitration allows the govt officials and the union leaders to implicitly reach agreement via a behind-closed-doors “structured” arbitration award whereby the govt reps, the union reps and the neutral arbitrator implicitly agree on what the award will be and the neutral then issues that award. In the real world, govt employer reps and union reps often know what the “correct” contract should be but neither can agree to this correct contract due to pressure from their respective constituents. Behind closed doors with a neutral arbitrator, each can negotiate a realistic agreement with the neutral arbitrator knocking down irrational demands and providing cover for rational concessions.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: A most interesting proposal to the situation in Los Angeles. I’ve always thought much of what ultimately settles a strike is the need to save face. Closed-door meetings with a skilled arbitrator can allow both sides to do so. What is the difference between an “interest” arbitrator and an arbitrator?

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    1. In labor parlance, “interest” arbitration is arbitration to determine what a contract will be — usually deciding wages, benefits, etc.. “Grievance” arbitration, by contrast, is arbitration to determine how the existing contract applies to a specific fact situation — i.e., a discharge.

      Grievance arbitration is very common — virtually all collective bargaining contracts provide for grievance arbitration and prohibit work stoppages in support of a contract grievance.

      Interest arbitration is relatively rare — so far as I know, it does not exist in regular private-employer contracts. Private employers do not want to relinquish control of wages/benefits issues to a third party arbitrator. Unions often prefer to strike to get what they want rather than rely on a third party arbitrator (at least that was true back when unions had economic power). The main use of interest arbitration is in the govt sector where public policy strongly discourages strikes. In relatively liberal states/cities, the law provides for interest arbitration and prohibits strikes for govt employees. In relatively conservative states/cities, the law prohibits strikes for govt employees but does not provide for interest arbitration — so the govt employees are dependent on the good will of the govt managers. Of course, there are a few places — usually very liberal — where the law allows govt employees to strike.

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