Louisiana teacher unions decide not to strike — for now

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 21, 2000

AP and staff reports

The talk of immediate teacher strikes across Louisiana ended Monday, but the threats of ”sick outs” and work stoppages continued as two separate teacher unions began outlining attack plans to win pay raises for employees.

After recommending against a strike, Carol Davis, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, suggested local school districts could have ”Chalk Dust Allergy” Day, ”Blue Flu” Day or ”Economic Health” Day, in which entire groups of teachers call in sick and don’t show up for school.

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”When you begin to see a loss of hope, that’s when you’re going to see sick outs occur,” Davis said.

”I suspect that we’re going to have some chalk dust problems in Lafayette Parish,” said Mary Washington, a fourth grade teacher at Duson Elementary School and past LAE president. ”If it doesn’t make it better, it’s certainly going to make us feel better.”

At the same time in Alexandria, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers unanimously decided to ask Gov. Mike Foster to include a teacher pay raise in his executive budget and call a special session of the Legislature if any taxes are needed to fund the raise.

If Foster declines, then the LFT will support any kind of work stoppage its local chapters decide to take, officials said.

In addition, the LFT will talk with the LAE and the AFL-CIO about a possible united statewide strike, ”So this crisis can be resolved prior to the end of the school year,” said LFT president Fred Skelton, who read the resolution. ”What this resolution means is that we will begin ordering picket signs tomorrow,” he said.

Davis said the LAE also wants the special session, but while she said she would support the LFT if its members were on strike, she declined to commit to their rhetoric or resolution.

”When we run out of options, we’re going to strike,” she said. ”That’s not the first place you go. That’s the last place.”

Davis said she would support any decisions local LAE members make.

Kristin Nunn, a fifth-grade teacher at Vidalia Upper Elementary, is taking a &uot;wait and see&uot; attitude about the possibility of a strike. &uot;The teacher in me says I can’t do that (strike), but the business person in me says I should,&uot; she said. &uot;I hate to be a fence-straddler, but that’s what I am.&uot;

Nunn said her first responsibility is to her students — to prepare them for junior high — and a strike could be detrimental to test scores.

&uot;I’m really hoping it can be resolved without a walkout,&uot; Nunn said. &uot;I just don’t know if right now in the middle of the school year is the best time to be making any changes.&uot;

This is Nunn’s second year in Louisiana public schools. Previously, she taught in Texas. She said it was difficult to make the transition from one of the best school systems to the lowest-paying in the country.

&uot;I hope the people who are making the decisions have everyone’s best interest in mind — not just mine,&uot; she said, adding that she has two children enrolled in Concordia Parish schools.

Fred Marsalis, Vidalia Junior High principal, said he too is waiting.

The union’s decision Monday to leave the next step up to individual school district adds pressure on local teachers, he said.

&uot;We’ll just have to wait and see until we get back in school (after Thanksgiving break),&uot; he said. Then, teachers will discuss what action they want to take as a school district.

As an administrator, Marsalis said it is difficult for him to comment on the possibility of a teacher strike.

Still, Marsalis believes teachers are grossly underpaid for the work they do, and are deserving of any raises they receive.

Mary Ann Wiggins, who teaches at a juvenile detention center in Red River Parish, said many LAE members are willing to strike, but union leaders are holding them back.

”We want to give the Legislature a chance to do their job and show us what their intentions are,” Wiggins said.

LFT officials said $350 million is needed for teachers, school employees and university professors.

About $240 million is needed to bring public school teacher pay to the Southern regional average, while university professors need a combined $60 million injection of state funds to reach the regional average. The union also is demanding $50 million for $1,500 across-the-board raises for other school employees such as teacher aids, cafeteria workers and janitors.

Davis, who in 1989 led the longest teacher strike in Louisiana’s history, in Terrebonne Parish for 41 days, spoke Monday of pursuing other options before striking, including a march on the State Capitol planned for March 17.

Davis introduced the union’s plans, beginning with an e-mail campaign to encourage teachers, administrators and support staff to send messages to legislators asking for pay raises. Davis sent the first e-mail Monday to Foster.

”I want to assure you that I plan to redouble my efforts, both in the short-term and long-term, to accomplish proper recognition and funding for public education. Rest assured this will be my first priority for the remainder of this administration,” Foster said in his e-mail response.

To the tune of thundering applause and the beating of tables, Davis likened the situation to a war and asked local groups to pass out leaflets, hold rallies and wear yellow ribbons in support of teacher pay increases.

She suggested the money could come from taxing businesses and the gambling industry. ”I am sick and tired of hearing big businesses say they want an educated work force but refusing to pay for it,” Davis said.

The two unions represent about 33,000 of the state’s 50,000 public school teachers. Teachers are upset because voters turned down an income tax increase that would have been used to bring teacher pay up to the Southern average.

”The frustration level is tremendously high. We’ve taken it for so long. I’ve never seen more discouraged teachers,” said Rick Bailey, a teacher at Northside High School in Lafayette. ”If it comes to a strike, it really is a last resort.”


EDITOR’S NOTE – Associated Press Writer Guy Coates contributed to this story.