In an attempt to speed up this year's contract talks, leaders of United Teachers-Los Angeles plan to ask union members to authorize a fall walkout, even though they have yet to begin serious negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Ballots will be passed out at all schools Monday and Tuesday asking teachers to commit to striking in mid-September if negotiations have not been completed by then.
Teachers last went on strike in 1989, but strike authorization votes have been taken frequently in the past when contract talks bogged down. It is unusual, though, for a union to raise the threat of a strike this early in the bargaining process.
Union leaders say the difference this year is that Los Angeles Unified's $4.3-billion budget includes enough money to continue their salaries at current levels--and perhaps even provide a slight raise.
In its preliminary contract proposals, the district has indicated that it may have to force teachers to transfer to comply with a court decree on school spending and has raised the possibility of cutting employee pay 4% from last year.
Officials say they do not believe that the district's final budget will include a pay cut, but paychecks going out to employees this week will include notices warning them of the possible salary cut, which would take effect in August.
That "just handed me my strike vote," said UTLA President Helen Bernstein, who represents 32,000 teachers, librarians, counselors and others. "If I don't have 100% agreement, then I have a bunch of [union members] who aren't very bright. . . . This is not a game. I swear to God it's not."
School Board President Mark Slavkin, who sits on the district's negotiating team, criticized the union's tactic as premature and misguided.
"At this point, there is no substantive basis of disagreement," Slavkin said. "They are engaging in rhetoric that I believe is not needed and . . . I think everyone cringes a little bit when people lightly throw out words like 'strike.' "
Union leaders are banking on support from a public that sympathizes with the plight of teachers and other school employees, who have suffered through years of salary cuts and are now making less than they did in 1991-92.
"They've lived with so much uncertainty," said UTLA spokeswoman Catherine Carey. "Maybe I'm being naive, but I think the public understands that the teachers and other Los Angeles Unified employees have been subsidizing the system."
But district negotiators say the strike vote could play poorly with the average citizen who may already be contemplating such anti-district initiatives as the proposed district breakup and tax-funded, private school voucher plans.
"For insiders, this is disappointingly business as usual from UTLA," said one senior district negotiator, who asked not to be named. "But it reflects poorly to the greater community."
None of the other unions representing district employees plan pre-negotiation strike votes, though several said they would certainly consider such action if negotiations break down.
"How many times can you cry wolf, really?" said Connie Moreno, negotiator for the California School Employees Assn., which represents 4,600 clerical and technical workers.
Although negotiations have begun for most of the unions on non-economic issues, the substantive bargaining is expected to start after the state budget is finalized, probably in early August.
Because Los Angeles Unified's budget is so dependent on state funds, other union leaders said the strike vote would have little effect on the speed of negotiations.
"The district knows what the pressure is already--that the employees are unhappy with having the pay cuts they've had to suffer," said Richard Slawson, negotiator for the Los Angeles County Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 1,200 school workers. "But we all know it's Sacramento that is to blame."
Bill Rivera, spokesman for Supt. Sid Thompson, agreed: "It will have no bearing at all. They do this every year at some point."