With the Los Angeles Unified School District facing a third year of crippling budget cuts, the teachers union went on the offensive last spring.
To spare its members from pay cuts ordered to close a $400-million budget gap, United Teachers-Los Angeles proposed an alternative:
Disband the district's police force. Reduce the clerical staff by 25%. Slash administrative salaries. But do not cut the pay of the district's 30,000 classroom teachers.
The proposal--which UTLA said would save $245 million--drew immediate fire from unions representing more than 35,000 non-teaching employees and paved the way for the controversial protection provisions that have emerged as a major roadblock to settling the teachers contract and averting a strike next week.
The seven unions--representing everyone from school principals and secretaries to plumbers and cafeteria workers--agreed to contracts last fall that would cut their pay. In exchange, they made the district promise that if the teachers union got a better deal, their members would also. The district further agreed not to resort to layoffs of the non-teaching employees in order to finance a teachers contract.
The protection agreements have been criticized by UTLA and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who is mediating the dispute between the teachers and district. But the other unions claim that the protection agreements--known as "me too" clauses--were the only way to protect themselves from a teachers union they do not trust.
"For years in this district there's been a kind of a pattern of other unions settling, then the teachers union dragging it out and getting some kind of better deal," said Connie Moreno, field representative for the California School Employees Assn., which represents 5,000 clerical workers.
"We got out in front of the issue this time and took the position that we'll take the cut, but we're not going to subsidize whatever deal you make with UTLA through layoffs of our members."
The agreements have emerged as a prime issue in negotiations between the district and UTLA, with Brown complaining that they limit his flexibility to forge an accord.
But after a meeting with Brown on Wednesday night, several leaders of the district's other employee unions said they are confident that no attempt is being made to dismantle the contractual agreements, which extend through the 1993-94 school year.
The agreements--sought by the seven unions representing the district's skilled tradespeople, clerical workers, classroom aides, principals and other non-teaching employees--offer protection in three ways:
* A "me too" clause says that if the district gives teachers or any other union more favorable contract terms, it must extend those terms to the unions that have signed.
* A "no subsidy" provision forbids the district from laying off members of unions that have signed in order to generate savings to fund its deal with the teachers.
* A third clause guarantees that if a teachers strike--which would cost the district millions of dollars in lost attendance revenue--puts the district in the red, it cannot recoup that money by laying off other employees.
The agreements do not prevent the district from laying off employees during the normal budget cycle, but provides that those layoffs cannot be tied to the teachers contract.
"I think we got language that is going to protect our people from the thing they are most afraid of," said Tom Newberry, chief negotiator with the Service Employees International Union, which represents 27,000 cafeteria workers and teachers aides.
"It's a defensive position," he said. "It became clear when you're looking at a $400-million deficit that there were going to be major cuts and the teachers union was not going to be our ally, so we had to protect ourselves."
The controversial provisions--which are unusual, but not unique--are a product of the difficult financial times and deteriorating relations between the teachers union and the other employee groups.
"In most cities, most of the time, teachers are the pattern-setters," said labor relations expert Charles Kerchner, a professor of education at Claremont Graduate School. "The teacher contract sets the pattern and the other (unions) take it. But what makes it different this time is they're negotiating over pay cuts ."
Last year, all employees accepted 3% pay cuts, and this year, all but the lowest paid employees were again asked to accept cuts, which ranged from 6.5% to 11.5%. Every union but UTLA accepted the cuts; teachers union members voted overwhelmingly to strike on Tuesday if the district does not come up with a more satisfactory offer.
Kerchner said it is not surprising that the other unions would seek to protect themselves against layoffs, given the greater power wielded by the teachers union.