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Get the Picture? : Teacher/Cartoonist Derides Union on Medical Benefits

February 21, 1988|SHELDON ITO | Times Staff Writer

Even to some of the most literate people in society, a picture is more easily read than a thousand words.

So Howard Bennett, a Culver City High School English teacher, started sending his colleagues cartoons instead of letters in his campaign to increase medical benefits for Culver City teachers. Since then, their support has grown, he said.

While 90% of the district's 260 teachers have already signed petitions in favor of better medical benefits, Bennett said the cartoons prompted a few of them to contribute small amounts of cash to his campaign and have made many more aware that their union has not fought for the benefits.

"The response (to the cartoons) has been fantastic," he said.

Challenge to Union

Bennett said he thinks that the cartoons, which charge that the union has failed to win extended medical benefits past the age of 65, will make it hard for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to retain the bargaining authority it has held for the last decade in an election planned this spring. The rival Culver City Teachers Assn. is seeking to win that authority instead.

"Most people are aghast that most teachers in California after 65 don't have Medicare," Bennett said, apparently referring to the federal medical program for the elderly. "And when you need it most and can afford it least, your health benefits cease."

Since November, Bennett has spent more than $1,000 sending seven cartoons to more than 300 current and retired Culver City teachers.

Retirees have responded warmly, some sending him donations along with letters detailing the burdens that medical costs, equal in some cases to half their pensions, have placed on their finances, he said. Eleven people have responded with a total of $135 to the cause, he said.

In addition, "I get a lot of spiritual income, and it keeps me going," said Bennett, who started the drive to clean up Santa Monica Bay a few years ago.

Cartoons 'Unprofessional'

Not all of the response has been positive, though, said federation President Diane Kaiser, who called the cartoons "very unprofessional and negative."

One cartoon shows a man representing the union asleep atop a pile of medical bills that have buried a teacher. The caption says: "Yes, they are on top of it all." Another shows a teetering Humpty Dumpty labeled "Financial Disaster After 65" on top of a crumbling wall marked "AFT."

The cartoons have damaged morale in the district, Kaiser charged. "It's depressing to come in and see mail that's negative," she said.

Kaiser, also a teacher at Culver City High School, said that the union has tried to win increased health benefits over the years, but that the school district does not have the money to provide them.

She said the district is already paying $500,000 to $600,000 a year for teachers' medical coverage.

If lifetime coverage is approved, "the active teachers could be paying coverage to retirees to the tune of millions of dollars in the future," she said.

"Howard's position is that he wants this no matter what the cost," Kaiser added. "He doesn't care if he bankrupts the district."

Bennett said the AFT union is not committed to extending health benefits to retirees and has not tried to find out what its exact cost would be.

"They don't even know the figures, but they summarily decided it's out of the question," he said. A committee of union and district representatives was recently formed to study the costs.

He said he started the cartoon campaign after he presented Kaiser with the petition signed by 90% of the teachers in favor of lifetime benefits and it "disappeared like a dark stone dropped into a black pool at midnight."

'What We Must Do'

"I don't buy the argument that we can't afford it," he said. "We must do it. So often in this society what we must do, it turns out, is what we can do."

Statistics provided by the California Teachers Assn., statewide parent of the Culver City association that is challenging the AFT, show that more than 100 school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, have lifetime medical coverage.

Kaiser and her union have done a poor job of fighting for both the increased medical benefits and annual pay raises, said Bess Doerr, president of the Culver City Teachers Assn.

She is confident that her union will wrest bargaining authority from the federation in this spring's vote, she said.

"We've lost two decertification elections (over the years), but we don't plan to lose this one," she said.

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