Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Do We Need a General Strike?

I’ve gotten to the point where I almost hate to look at my Facebook teacher friends’ statuses. It seems that whenever the School Reform Commission has done its last stupid, vindictive, anti-union maneuver, another stupid, vindictive anti-union one follows immediately on its heals.

I know that in New York, an advertising agency has been hired by pro-charter, anti-union groups to publicly bash both the union and its president. They have taken out full-page ads in the New York Times and large billboards near busy highways that disparage and insult the American Federation of Teachers and what they do, which is teach children against all odds. I have sat in my chair and shook my head, but never expected similar tactics would be used here. But in today's feed I found this:


Our union has not had a strike in several decades I believe. It’s because both parties showed up and the negotiation table ready to truly give and take. Now that the SRC has become entrenched in Philadelphia, Governor Corbett has appointed Bill Green, who has been anti-public schools from the beginning. In fact, when his father was Mayor of Philadelphia, he rescinded the contract that had been bargained and that resulted in a long strike. It looks like Mr. Green was appointed to the SRC to do something similar.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has been bargaining in good faith since our contract ran out in September 2012. The initial offerings from the SRC included taking away almost everything we had won in the bargaining process since the inception of the union in the 1970’s. This included taking away requirements for a working water fountain, a teacher’s desk and chair, a closet for the teacher’s purse and coat, separate rooms for the nurse and counselor to insure privacy, chairs and desks for every child, etc. You can see that their proposals were ridiculous. The SRC unilaterally eliminated seniority and class size limits after the contract ran out and instituted hire-back rules that had previously been outlawed by the contract. They wanted us to take a pay cut, increase the working hours and days, and pay a sizable chunk for our medical benefits, which were free as a consolation for not getting any raises. In fact, the School District had suggested it! The last bargaining session with the SRC found the PFT offering $24 million in paid medical benefits. This was on top of the $78 million the SRC “borrowed” from the PFT Health and Welfare Fund, $30 million of which the union told them to keep. The SRC declined to acknowledge it at all and has not been back to the table since. The SRC considers the talks are at an impasse and instead of calling in an arbitrator or mediator, decided to unilaterally cancel the contract the union members have been working under during the negotiations. Although the School District feels that the state legislature gave the SRC power to do that, the union and others are suing the district for the action.

The teachers of Philadelphia have endured 60 school closures, countless charter schools, vouchers, layoffs, and draconian budgets that leave schools without books, supplies, counselors, nurses, secretaries, assistant principals, copy paper, and even toilet paper. Cleaning staff has been laid off so that in many schools the only cleaning that can go on is emptying trash baskets and occasionally sweeping the floors. Bugs and mice run rampant through the dirty schools and teachers are supposed to supply tissues, toilet paper, paper towels and soap or hand sanitizer.

The last straw and one close to my heart is the recent decision of the SRC to abolish the union’s Health and Welfare Funds, stop benefits for retired teachers, and to institute payments for formerly-free medical benefits for teachers, counselors, classroom assistants, and secretaries. The much touted benefit program they rolled out claimed a cost of $20 to $70 for employees (5% to 13% payments). But the real costs for those who wish to keep a similar plan they have now are more like $140 to $650 a month! In addition, principals who make six-figure salaries pay only 7% and our superintendent who makes over $200,000 only contributes 5%. They are trying to balance their budget on the back of the teachers. The lower payment yields high deductibles and co-pays of 10% for hospital stays and ER visits. You will find the chart with the real costs below. Last year they had negotiated payments for benefits with the blue-collar workers and principals and then rewarded them by laying off cleaning staff and assistant principals. We are waiting for the other shoe to drop on us too. I am a retiree with 3 more years to collect Social Security. I already pay $1350 a month for medical coverage for my spouse and I. Now they have eliminated the prescription benefits, which will now cost my spouse and I upwards of $10,000 a year just for prescriptions.

I see the frustration in the posts of current teachers, counselors and nurses, trying to do more with nothing. Every day I wonder how they have the strength to go into work each day and smile and teach. I spend every day thanking God I have retired and don’t have to deal with the reality that is the current school district. Sometimes I have to NOT read their posts so I don’t become depressed about the anti-teacher, anti-union, anti-public school attitude that prevails nationwide and is especially onerous in Philadelphia.

But people are starting to fight back. Last year, parents rallied their school communities to oppose turning their schools over to charters. Helen Gym, a nationally-known parent activist, regularly contributes articles to the Notebook, an outside-the-district newspaper that highlights and investigates issues in the school district. Helen has spoken at rallies, at the SRC meetings, at parent gatherings, anywhere people will listen. Daniel Denvir at the City Paper, and Kristen Graham at The Inquirer, are two of our journalist supporters in the city media. And today’s newsfeed yields the unions citywide discussing a general strike in support of the teachers, since we are the only teachers’ union in the state not allowed by law to strike. Diane Ravitch, public school activist extraordinaire, fights for us in her blog and rallies others to speak out in support of public schools and the mess they’re in because of corporate reform methods that are not working.

I thank everyone who leaves a message of support or disseminates the correct information about our situation. The current teachers, those laid off, and the retirees all need your voices against the evil dealings of the SRC.


Fact Checking by the Notebook

Philadelphia unions ponder a general strike to support the PFT

The REAL costs of the new medical benefits:

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Game is On! Our Contract is Revoked.

I don’t know what the legislature was thinking when they gave the School Reform Commission (SRC) such broad powers over the School District of Philadelphia (SDP). The law was written in such a way as to NOT mention it was only for Philadelphia, but made it obvious when they wrote it to apply only to first class cities. Duh! There’s only one first class city in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia.

Among other things, the law dissolved the city-appointed school board, appointed a state-appointed majority School Reform Commission to govern the schools, and negate the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ (PFT) right to strike. One of the never-before-used-privileges it gave to the SRC was to cancel the contract and to impose terms on the teachers. These things were supposed to fix the financial and educational woes of the city schools. In the dozen years of SRC control it has done neither.

 In the years since the SRC took over, we have not had a strike, nor an imposed contract, but have negotiated several contracts in the regular manner. For 2 years, the PFT has been negotiating with the SRC with absolutely no GIVE on the SRC’s part. The PFT understood that the district is in a financial bind, and offered to forego any raises. The union also loaned the district $30 million from its Health and Welfare funds to help the SRC balance its books. Last year, the SRC revoked the pay steps for people with advanced degrees and longevity. Teachers who stay more than 10 years get no extra pay for remaining, but it is an incentive for the young teachers hired to stay. After being encouraged to get advanced degrees by the SRC, so we could become “highly qualified,” the teachers who got those degrees 2 years ago were denied their pay raises. The school district, unlike many of its suburban districts, does not pay for nor reimburse teachers for advance degrees.

The SRC claims that the teachers did nothing to help the financial troubles of the district. They are dead wrong. In addition to settling for being paid less for a much more difficult job than their suburban counterparts, 19% less than a local district, our Philly teachers typically spend thousands of dollars of their own money to supplement their meager $100 supply allowance from the district. They spend their own time after and before school to do extra-curricular activities needed by the students. They teach in neighborhoods where two-thirds of the students suffer from PTSD due to the violent atmosphere or high poverty of their environment. They have even provided soap, toilet paper, copy paper and tissues for their classrooms, supplies that the district will not provide.

This scenario has been due to happen sooner or later. Here in Pennsylvania, The last several governors have not supported public education. In 2010, the state legislature did a study and found that the public schools in the state were underfunded by BILLIONS of dollars. Although Governor Rendell supplied the extra funds for the public schools via use of the stimulus fund from the federal government, he failed to change the school funding formula to make education funding fair across the state. Even though there were additional funds for districts where students were non-English speakers, special ed, or high poverty, it was not enough. When Governor Corbett came into office, he revoked the additional funds for those groups of students, and stopped reimbursing school districts for some charter school expenses. Thus the available funds that the stimulus had provided were now gone, as well as the additional funds for poor, special ed, and ELL students.

Charters have been given rampant growth opportunities and lack of oversight as the public schools in Pennsylvania, especially in Philadelphia, siphon away the best students, and leave the special ed, behaviorally challenged, and non-English speaking students to be educated by the city schools. Only a handful of these charters have been able to score better on the state tests, with all of the cyber charters and 50% of the brick-and-mortar charters performing worse than the public schools they replaced.

In the recent debate by the gubernatorial candidates, Mr. Corbett said he was no friend of education unions. That has been obvious since day one of his term. But can the teachers’ union wait until the November election and January change of watch to get the imposition of work rules revoked. I submit that we cannot. It’s now time for action, and that action seems to be pointing to a strike, legal or not.

The Philadelphia Notebook describes the revocation of the contract here.