Teachers avert strike, agree to work for free
Portland educators accept deal requiring 10 unpaid days
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) -- Portland teachers have overwhelmingly ratified a contract that includes an unprecedented offer to work 10 days for free, accept a 1 percent pay raise and other concessions to stave off cuts in education spending and health benefits.
The two-year pact includes the remainder of this school year and ends with the school year in 2004.
It reverses an earlier union vote to strike, hinged on government officials' promises to temporarily raise taxes on businesses and perhaps personal incomes to help close a budget gap that threatened to lop 24 days of classes off the school year.
The 3,300-member union's decision to work for free stunned labor experts.
"I have never heard of such a thing," said Rick Hurd professor of labor studies at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
The union's concessions underscore the deep budget woes staggering cities and towns in Oregon and in other states struggling through lengthy localized recessions. Oregon's unemployment is among the highest in the nation.
The 10 free days work equates to a five percent pay cut this year, but will preserve the 171-day class schedule if new tax revenues cover the other 14 days scheduled to be cut.
"This is disastrous ... not only from the perspective of fewer and fewer middle income jobs, but also considering the challenge of our country to improve education. Working to impoverish teachers is self-defeating and disastrous," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think-tank in Washington, D.C.
Cutbacks, high taxes
Portland's teachers currently earn $28,725 for beginning teachers to $60,371 annually for those at the top of the scale.
President Ann Nice of the Portland Association of Teachers said the contract "temporarily moves us out of a crisis. But Portland teachers deserve far more than they are getting."
Oregon, suffering one of the worst state budget shortfalls in the country, has slashed funding to schools as well as social services and law enforcement.
Portland, the state's largest school district with 53,000 students, has made the deepest cuts, but many other districts have shortened their school years. Portland's cuts made national headlines.
Business leaders, facing higher taxes, offered mixed support for the plan.
"I'm not thrilled to be paying higher taxes in this poor economy, but I'm willing to do it to support the kids," said Dana Herbert, who runs a business designing and manufacturing women's fashion accessories. "What small business wants more taxes? But I have two kids in school."
The Portland Business Alliance declined to comment, but it has previously said it will not support tax hikes until the school district reins in health care costs.
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