2/20/08

Union OKs teacher strike action in N.H.

The threat of a teachers strike now looms over the city, after teachers voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to give its leadership the authority to institute a job action, including a work stoppage. State law prohibits public employees from striking or taking any other kind of job action.

The move comes after Nashua (NH) Mayor Donnalee Lozeau issued a line-item veto of an approved teachers contract Friday, eliminating the first-year raises in the four-year deal. Those raises would have to be paid retroactively, which Lozeau said the city couldn't afford.

The last teachers contract expired in September 2006, and teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, school nurses and other school employees covered by the deal have been working without a raise since.

At a union meeting at Alpine Grove in Hollis on Tuesday afternoon, more than 500 teachers gathered to discuss the next step.

Parking spaces were at a premium, and many teachers had to park along South Depot Road.

The meeting was closed to the public. From outside the hall, teachers could be heard applauding several times throughout the meeting.

The meeting broke up shortly after 5 p.m. As teachers filtered out, they ignored requests for comment, some saying they were told not to speak with the press.

IF YOU GO:
If you goBoard of education budget public hearing

WHEN:
Tonight at 7.

WHERE:
Nashua High School North, 10 Chuck Druding Drive.
After the meeting, Bob Sherman, president of the Nashua Teachers Union, said a motion was raised to give the union's executive board the authority to call for a job action at any time, including a strike.

A voice vote was held, and Sherman said it was nearly unanimous.

"They're angry. They're frustrated," Sherman said of the teachers' mood.

The vote doesn't mean that teachers will strike, but it sets the process in motion for that to happen, said Sherman.

He called a strike a "last resort," and would not elaborate on what other types of job actions could be approved.

Sherman said there was no vote on the contract at the meeting, but the vote teachers did take should make it clear that they are not willing to forgo their retroactive raises.

Sherman proposed that all of the "key players" – school board members, aldermen, Lozeau and union representatives – sit down as a group to come up with some kind of deal, saying that "we're in the eleventh hour."

The current process, which excludes aldermen and the mayor from negotiations, isn't working, he said.

"We need to come up with another way of reaching a fair agreement," he said.

At issue are the first-year raises included in the latest proposal, which would give teachers a 2.75 percent pay increase, retroactive to January 2007.

Teachers would receive 4.75 percent pay increases in the final three years of the deal, though the raises wouldn't kick in until the middle of each school year.

Last week, aldermen approved the contract, 8-6, but knowing that a two-thirds vote would be needed to approve the $3.09 million for the raises, it appeared the contract was dead.

On Friday, Lozeau issued a partial veto of the contract, eliminating the first-year raises but leaving the rest of the deal intact. She said she had collected the 10 votes needed to approve the $425,000 needed to fund her proposal.

The way the contract is structured, teachers would go a year and a half without raises, but would immediately jump from their current frozen salaries to the second year of the salary schedule.

Teachers have also made health-care concessions in the contract, agreeing to pay more for co-pays for prescriptions and gradually paying a higher percentage for medical coverage.

By the final year of the contract, teachers would be paying 10 percent for an HMO Blue or Harvard Pilgrim Health Care plan, up from 5 percent.

Teachers who opt for a point-of-service plan would go from contributing 15 percent to 17 percent.

The contract also raises the minimum starting salary for teachers by eliminating the first two steps of the salary schedule. Starting teachers would make a minimum of $35,940 by the final year of the deal.

Nashua currently ranks 68th in starting salary for teachers.

The union's vote Tuesday, while overwhelming, was not unanimous, and not all teachers agreed that a job action is the right move. One teacher who opposed the vote said it's not going to solve anything.

"The reality is I want this solved," said the teacher, who wished to remain anonymous. "But it's not worth going through a strike. It's not worth affecting students learning."

The teacher also criticized how Tuesday's meeting was handled, saying that not enough information was made available to make an informed decision.

While principally opposed to giving up raises in the first year, the teacher believed there should have at least been some discussion about the actual impact of the veto.

"Get some charts and show us some numbers," the teacher said. "That's what I expected and that's not what I got."

The teacher said that Lozeau's proposal wasn't even considered, and the legality of her actions was questioned. The teacher suggested the outcome of the vote to authorize a strike would have been different if it was a secret ballot.

Sherman said that with nearly 1,000 members of the union, it was impossible to interpret how the veto impacted everyone.

"With 900-plus teachers, you can't get into each individual financial situation," he said.

In a Nashua Teachers Union press release issued later Tuesday evening, Sherman wrote that a strike is not something the union takes lightly.

"We understand that any strike is inconvenient for students and parents, but the teachers and school nurses deserve to be compensated and treated fairly," he wrote.

On Tuesday night, school board members and district administrators met behind closed doors to discuss the status of the contract.

After the meeting ended, Superintendent Christopher Hottel said he wants to see the situation resolved, and he continues to stand behind getting a fair deal for the teachers.

When asked about the possibility of a strike or other job actions, Hottel said it's something he hopes to avoid and realizes it could heighten concern in the community.

"We want to ensure safety and continuity for our students," he said. "It just takes us down the wrong road."

It's not known what the penalties are for breaking state laws for striking.

Other states have imposed heavy fines against teachers unions for organizing strikes. Before teachers in Quincy, Mass., ended their four-day strike last year, a Superior Court judge threatened to fine the union $150,000.

School board member Jack Kelley, chairman of the board's negotiating committee, said he didn't have much information about the next step. He said he needed to get in touch with the board's attorney.

When told about Sherman's proposal to include aldermen and the mayor in negotiations, Kelley again said he needed to consult with board's attorney before commenting.

(nashuatelegraph.com)

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