The president of the Washington Teachers Union told a meeting of union representatives yesterday that he will continue to negotiate with the city school board and not call a teacher strike unless the board formally tells the union that their contract has expired.
But, William Simons, president of the union, warned that a strike vote will be taken if school principals or other school administrators begin dictating orders to teachers that would have not been allowed under the old contract. And Simons said if the school system notifies teachers that the automatic union dues checkoff on teachers' paychecks -- the union's prime source of money -- is being ended that also will cause him to call for a strike.
"The onus is on the school board again," Simons told about 200 teachers at the meeting held at Metropolitan AME Church. Since Wednesday, when a third extension of the contract expired, Simons has been threatening to call a strike of the city's teachers and stop bargaining over a new contract.
"This union is not organized for the purpose of disrupting the educational program of children," he said. "This union has always been about improving the educational program in the District of Columbia.
"However, we hold the truth to be self-evident that in order to have improvements in the educational programs there must be respect and dignity for teachers... If it takes a strike to maintain the respect and dignity for teachers we'll do it. We will do it in a minute."
Simons told the teachers that negotiations have progressed between the union and the board in the last week with both sides agreeing to 10 articles for a new contract. But Simons quieted the applause that followed that announcement by saying that the 10 articles concerned minor issues that "should never have been on the table."
He said there are 16 major items still separating the board and the union and he characterized the board's stance on those issues as "a passport to slavery for teachers."
"They (the school board) are simply incapable when it comes to good... labor management," Simons said." "They're plain stupid...."
Carol Schwartz, vice president of the school board, said the board did not inform the union that the contract has expired because both sides had agreed in January to extend the contract until Feb. 14.
"I really don't think we had any intention of notifying them [the union]" Schwartz said. "The contract expired by inaction and when a contract expires all of its provisions expire... Of course the teachers still have the protection of due process from our board rules but the union knows when the contract expired."
Conrad Smith, former president of the board, said no action was taken by the board that Simons could be informed of because a motion to extend the contract was defeated and the contract was allowed to end.
Smith said the automatic union dues checkoff on teachers' paychecks will not be affected by the expiration of the contract until the middle or end of March because payroll computers will have to be reprogrammed.
"There is time," Smith said, "and I hope both parties will continue negotiating and come up with a new contract."
Simons said that many of the board's proposals for the new contract amount to an attempt to "break the union."
Teachers at the meeting yesterday cheered Simons regularly and said that they cannot work without a contract because, as one described it, their principals, "little bosses with big heads," will force them to do work that they do not want to do.
"My principal was teasing me yesterday," said Doris Wright, a teacher at Paul Junior High School, "and said there was a faculty meeting at 4:15 [p.m. on a Friday]. Well, it was only a tease but without a contract they could do that and we would have to go."
"People tell me the way it was before we had a contract," said John Garner, a teacher at Johnson Junior High. "If a principal wanted you to stay for a basketball game after school you had no choice. He could tell you at the last minute and if you didn't do it, that was your job."
Several teachers criticized a board proposal to make teachers work a longer school year and a longer school day.
"... They have a provision in there asking us to work 33 percent more time for free," said Bill Stewart, a welding teacher at Beall Vocational High School. "That's crazy. You don't ask someone to work for nothing. They must be cooking something up, you can bet on that, but I don't know what it is and I don't think most teachers know."
Simons ended the meeting by telling the union representatives to call teachers at their schools and tell them to "hang loose and stay ready."
"When the call comes," Simons said, "it will be simple. Get your sign and get on the line."