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Red Wing teachers strike
Red Wing teachers are on strike. Mediation with district officals broke down last night. The two sides are deadlocked over health insurance benefits and salaries. Teachers have been working without a contract for more than 15 months. Now as teachers take to the picket line for the first time in district history, four other unions affiliated with the local public schools are also contemplating a walk-out.

Both school district officials and teachers say they're preparing for a long strike. There are no plans to return to the bargaining table. The district has been aggressively recruiting substitute teachers to fill its elementary school classrooms as early as next week. Red Wing School Superintendent Kelly Smith says the district is already operating in the red thanks to declining enrollment and rising health insurance costs. He says the school system doesn't have the money to satisfy the teacher's demands.

"The district has worked with union negotiators more than 30 times in an effort to settle this contract issue," Kelly says. "I certainly believe our current teacher compensation package is very competitive. We presented data to our public that shows we're extremely competitive in our conference and within the surrounding area."

Smith says Red Wing teacher's rank 33 out of Minnesota's 340 school districts in terms of compensation. He says that shows teacher compensation package is fair.

But he'll get little agreement from the folks outside of the building. By midday roughly two dozen teachers were walking the picket line in front of the main entrance to the high school. The group held red strike signs, and were greeted with honks of support from passing motorists.

Steve Nelson was among the group of teachers. Normally, Nelson would be in his classroom teaching agriculture science. He says he thinks the strike could be long. But Nelson says the teachers are committed to getting what they consider a fair contract.

"The district is asking teachers to take zero and they want teachers to pay back on their insurance," says Nelson. That's not a fair and equitable solution for us so that's why we're here."

But there's a big gap between what the union wants and what the school district is offering.

The union is demanding a salary and benefit increase of 14.2 percent over two years. The district is offering what it considers the statewide average, about 9.6 percent. It would cost the district $645,000 more to meet the unions demands.

Sue Wolter is the president of the local teacher's union. Wolter says the last contract was kept to a bare bones deal to help the financially strapped district. She says now the teachers want to be equitably compensated for their work.

Striking teachers are not being paid nor is there a union strike fund. As a result Wolter says she's concerned district officials have no plans to make up lost school days at the end of the year.

"We have concerns that when the district says it has no makeup days, they're doing that as a punishment so to speak for teachers," says Wolter. "They need to look at what it does to students since their loosing that many days of education in the classroom."

The strike also may soon spread to school district staff in four other unions. Support staffers could strike as early as Friday and secretarial workers could walk out early next week. Custodial workers and the school cooks are still in mediation.

School Superintendent Kelly Smith says all of the talk surrounding potential strikes is no coincidence.

"The message here is there's strength in that unity that all of those groups have filed intent. We believe we have competitive packages and have been at the table with all of those groups, especially given the finical state of the district," says Smith.

In addition district officials have postponed plans for a November levy referendum. They say instead they'll plan to ask voters for more money in December. Classrooms will remain empty for the remainder of the week. And tonight's high school football playoff game between the Red Wing Wingers and the Austin Packers has been moved to Austin. The Red Wing team will be coached by non-union administrative staff.

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