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Oakland Teachers Settle Strike - Oakland Tribune


OAKLAND - City teachers voted for stability Wednesday night, agreeing to a three-year contract that will end free health care but add more than 6 percent to salaries during the next three years.
Beating back a last-minute drive by opponents urging teachers to vote against the pact, a definitive majority, 931 to 639, instead said they can live with contract provisions that will have them paying at most $700 per year for health care.

``A lot of time has been taken away from the children already,'' said high school teacher Barbara Castleton. ``If I was teaching to get the last possible dime I could, I wouldn't be teaching.''

Many of the teachers who said they voted in favor of the contract made similar argument as they left the Oakland Scottish Rite Center.

Many also said they saw no resolution in sight if the contract had been rejected.

``The alternative is to go back and bargain, which would be too hard, or to go on strike, and nobody wants to do that,'' said an elementary school teacher who also voted in favor of the contract.

The contract approval brings an end to the more than two-year saga that came within hours of a strike. It also eases, for now, the hostile relationship between teachers and State Administrator Randolph Ward, who took over the bankrupt district more than three years ago.

``It's a big win for teachers and for families,'' school district spokesperson Alex Katz said. ``The important thing is to focus on the last five weeks of the school year and make it as productive as possible,'' Katz said.

The contract's approval, however, had not been guaranteed.

The union's bargaining team and district officials first reached a tentative agreement on April 19, averting a strike the following day.

But within hours, a group of teachers began to lobby against the pact.

It failed to win an endorsement from the union's executive board and among union representatives from Oakland schools. David de Leeuw, chairman of the union bargaining team, said he would vote against the pact. Union president Ben Visnick supported the deal.

Contract supporters said it is a fair deal and those opposed said it is not enough to keep teachers in Oakland.

Health benefits were the biggest sticking point in contract negotiations and the tentative agreement will end free health care for teachers.

Under the deal, retroactive to July 1, 2005, teachers will receive free health care during the first year, and spend half a percent of their salaries on health benefits during the second and third years. Beginning June 30, 2008, the union will cover 4 percent of premium costs. Teachers will pay no more than $700 per year for health care and their contribution will be based on salary.

Teachers also will receive a 6.25 percent raise over three years, although many have noted that 4 percent of the increase is the restoration of a previous pay cut.

``No one is jumping for joy,'' Union president Ben Visnick said. ``Money is not great in this contract but it was the health care that mattered.''

The deal met with resistance the minute it left the bargaining table.

The union's 16-person executive board deadlocked over whether to endorse the contract in late April and union representatives voted it down 55 to 46 earlier this month.

In the end, however, it came down to teachers not wanting to go on strike and realizing the district did not have the cash to pay increased benefits.

``These are the economic realities of the district,'' said a teacher from an elementary school, who voted in favor of the deal. ``We're in debt to the state ... teachers are just not going to get a better deal.''
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