Tuesday, October 7, 2014

21st Century Union Busting Philly Style

At the turn of the last century, union busting often took the guise of a military action. Sometimes legalized thugs like those from the Pinkerton Agency were hired by companies to break some union members heads and end a labor action with violence. Other times federal troops or the National Guard were brought in to do the company's bidding.

In Philadelphia this week, the State Regulation Commission (SRC), which has run the schools in Philadelphia since 2001, is trying a tactic built for a new century - cancelling its contract with the teacher's union. This action apparently came with no warning. It has the full support of Broad Academy graduate and Schools Superintendent William Hite, Philadelphia's Mayor Nutter,  and Pennsylvania's anti-education Governor Corbett.

Make no mistake about it, this action is another in a long line of education reform efforts to blame the teachers for the problems of urban schools. This time instead of shouldering the blame for the poor achievement of urban school children, the teachers are being asked to take the blame for the poor fiscal management of the schools and the high cost of health care in the nation.

What is at issue here? The SRC has unilaterally cancelled the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) while negotiations were on-going. The action was taken so that the SRC can impose its plan for teachers contributing to their health care. Why has the SRC taken this action? Why , of course, for the kids. The district will save money and according to Hite, "put the money right back into the classroom." Governor Corbett said, the action "will effectively close the funding gap and provide the district with the ability to hire new teachers, counselors and nurses, and secure educational resources that will benefit the students of Philadelphia." He failed to mention that it has been his policies, including unilateral reductions in school funding, that have brought the Philadelphia schools to this point.

Corbett and his sycophantic Education Secretary, Carolyn Demaresque, attempted to make the action sound like it was about the teachers and their union accepting that most other public employees are now paying for part of their health care. This appeal may play well with the public, but it also plays fast and loose with the facts.  The health care plan that the SRC is putting into place, outside of any negotiated agreement, is in a very real way, a wage reduction for a group of teachers who are already poorly paid as compared to their suburban counterparts only a few miles away. Not to mention that these teachers work in what is often a very difficult and very stressful environment with children with many educational, social, emotional and physical needs.

A Philadelphia teacher making 55,000 dollars a year (hardly a luxurious wage) will see a reduction in salary of between one and three thousand dollars. The SRC says they are not reducing salaries, but this is disingenuous. The teacher's paycheck will be smaller. It doesn't really matter what column the deduction comes from.

The PFT will challenge the unilateral action of the SRC in court. It is not at all clear that the governing body has the power to void the contract. The best case scenario would be for the courts to rule this action illegal and get the parties back together for negotiations.

Let's be clear about one thing: the fiscal and educational problems that the School District of Philadelphia face are not the fault of the teachers or their union. These problems are rooted in the racism that brought about the "white flight" from the city in the 1950s, 60s and 70s; the poverty that afflicts large numbers of Philadelphia school children; the failure of the legislature to come up with a  viable funding formula for the city's schools; the failed experiments with charter schools that have drained public education funds without any clear benefits; long periods of fiscal mismanagement of the schools; Corbett's budget cutting which impacted all schools in Pennsylvania, but urban schools especially; and the rampant rise in health care costs brought about by greed and bungled regulation.

The SRC, Governor Corbett, Mayor Nutter, and Superintendent Hite seek to blame the teachers and the unions for these problems, created by others and ineptly addressed by others. It is a bullying tactic. Fortunately, teachers know how to deal with bullies. You need to call their bluff.

All who care about public education must all hang with the teachers of Philadelphia or, as that famous Philadelphian, Ben Franklin said, we will surely hang separately.