Portland teachers’ contract holds the line

March 11, 2010

PORTLAND, Ore.--After 19 months without a contract, teachers here have finally gained a new agreement that doesn't include the main concessions sought by the school board.

The Portland Association of Teachers (PAT), part of the National Education Association, had been in an acrimonious battle with Portland Public School Board (PPS). Since negotiations began, PPS had been demanding a lengthened workday and work year, five unpaid furlough days, increased health care costs and many other changes in the contract language.

Teachers and other educational staff have been in forefront of the battle for educational funding, putting in many hours and dollars to pass the recent Measures 66 and 67, securing funding for schools. They worked 10 days for free a few years ago as well as using their own money for classroom supplies.

Yet these sacrifices and dedication weren't enough for PPS, which wanted more from the teachers. School officials said they respected teachers, but showed nothing but disdain for them. And while the teachers were expected to take the brunt of the budget crisis, PPS expanded its bureaucracy, giving big pay raises to people with no work history in education.

Throughout the contract talks, the PPS negotiating team was ignorant of the educational terms or even what was already in the contract. It proved a frustrating and unnecessary waste of time.

Teachers overwhelmingly voted for the three-year contract, which is retroactive to the expiration date of the previous agreement. The new deal gives teachers lump-sum back pay in April, a pay raise of 2 percent in the first year, no pay raise for the second and 2 percent in the third year. There will be none of the once-threatened five furlough days and no increase in contributions to health care.

The teachers did agree to 7.5 minutes duty time before and after the student day, but that's not the 15 minutes PPS wanted. Teachers are already required to be there for those 15 minutes, but it was made clear by the PAT in the contract that this will not increase the workday, work week or workload of unit members.

All the other changes that PPS wanted to put into the contract failed. This was due to PAT mobilizing its membership into various activities, including big rallies and pickets of the school board meetings, which visibly rattled school board members.

Last November, PAT put the heat on PPS with a 1,200-person picket line outside a school board meeting. Teachers, furious that school board members had called them an "outside body," streamed into the building chanting, "Contract now!"

This demonstration showed just how angry teachers had become. "I've worked for Portland for over 30 years, and I've never been more disgusted with the district," said Trudy Rees, a teacher at Harvey Scott Elementary School.

The next day, PPS dropped its demand for five furlough days after it "found" $11 million. But it took another three months of teacher mobilization to push the board into pulling back its other aggressive demands and finally agreeing to a contract.

A new contract is due next spring--and to be sure, PPS will be back with a vengeance. As part of the agreement, the PAT agreed to form a joint committee with PPS to study how school principals evaluate teachers and examine the teachers' working day--a move that could be a prelude to a demand for further concessions. PAT will have to draw on the lessons of this struggle to keep the school board at bay.

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