Finding common ground

Strikes are never pleasant for either side in a labor dispute, and they are seldom as unpleasant as when they shut down public schools. Employees of the Eagle Point School District will take a strike vote today, even as negotiators for the union and the district conduct one more mediation session. Both sides should bend enough to avert a walkout.

Relations between District 9 and its employees — the Eagle Point Education Association represents both teachers and classified staff — have been contentious for a long time. The fact that school employees are even contemplating a strike in the current economic climate shows how serious they are about their grievances.

There has been only one teachers strike in Jackson County since the Public Employees Collective Bargaining Act passed in 1973. It happened three years ago in Rogue River, and lasted just 11/2 days. That is ample evidence that the last thing teachers want is to close schools.

The primary obstacle to a settlement appears to be the length of a new contract. Teachers want a one-year agreement; the district wants a three-year pact.

The district has offered a 2 percent cost of living increase, retroactive for this school year, and no increases in years two and three. Employees with less than 14 years of seniority would still receive step increases — 3.5 percent for teachers, 4.5 percent for support staff. That's far more generous than most employees are getting these days in the private sector.

Because there is no contract in place, a one-year agreement would expire in July, immediately beginning the negotiation process over again. District officials don't want that, and that's understandable. It's also unrealistic to expect the district's financial picture to be anything but bleak for the next year.

Employees want to avoid getting locked into a three-year contract in case the district's fortunes improve to the point that it could afford to grant raises. That's also understandable — the prospect for economic recovery is more favorable two years down the road than over the next 12 months.

The middle ground seems obvious here: Both sides agree to a two-year contract, or a three-year contract with the option of reopening the salary issue if the economy improves.

Of course things are more complicated than that. There are doubtless other issues still outstanding.

The union must recognize that public opinion will be overwhelmingly against it at a time when large numbers of people are struggling to live on unemployment benefits or to keep their homes. The administration must recognize its troubled relations with district employees will only grow worse if a solution is not reached.

Everyone — teachers, administrators, students and the community — will suffer if the schools are closed. There will be no winners.

If an agreement is reached, neither side is likely to get all it wants. But if school doors stay open, both will have won.

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