Published Online: March 6, 1991

Foes Set Sights on Pennsylvania Teacher-Strike Law

Pennsylvania's two-decades-old law authorizing strikes by teachers and other public employees is coming under renewed attack this year from a chorus of lawmakers, taxpayer groups, and school administrators.

Critics of the law, known as Act 195, contend that it has led to an excessive number of teacher walkouts that disrupt the educational process and force costly wage settlements.

One of only 10 states giving teachers the right to strike, Pennsylvania has led the nation for several years in the number of strikes and the number of school days lost to strikes, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Since passage of Act 195 in 1970, the school-board group says, more than 750 teacher strikes have occurred in the state.

"The time has come to place some limitations on teachers' right to strike," said Senator Tim Shaffer, who has sponsored a proposal to change the law.

In a state known for its strong support for organized labor, legislative proposals over the years to curb the number of strikes have uniformly failed. This year, however, calls for change are generating new attention.

Calls for Change

Most notably, Representative Stephen Freind, who has won national recognition for his sponsorship of a state law restricting abortions, has vowed to focus his energies on teacher strikes this year.

The Republican legislator last month unveiled a bill to allow strikes only when a majority of teachers represented by a local bargaining unit--including those who do not belong to the union--vote by secret ballot to authorize a walkout. The proposal, similar to one advanced by Mr. Freind last year, would also require locals to give school districts 48 hours' notice of an impending strike and dock teachers at twice their daily pay for every day they strike illegally.

Two other lawmakers have also announced plans to introduce bills curtailing teachers' right to strike. One calls for a binding-arbitration procedure when union-board contract talks break down, under which a judge would choose between "final best offers" submitted by each side.

Senator James C. Greenwood, sponsor of the binding-arbitration proposal, said his interest in addressing the issue was prompted by the "extravagant" nature of some recent teachers' contracts.

In a highly publicized settlement last year, veteran teachers in the Council Rock school district, which Mr. Greenwood represents, were given the right to earn more than $80,000 by 1996. With an average salary of $33,338 last year, Pennsylvania teachers were the 12th-highest paid in the nation.

Another proposal would outlaw selective strikes--those staged without any warning--and impose financial penalties on both teachers and districts when strikes cut into the state-mandated 180-day school year.

"I think in this legislative session changes will occur," predicted Joseph Oravitz, executive director of the psba, which has long sought to amend the law.

In addition, Secretary of Education Donald M. Carroll Jr. said last month that he will propose restricting teachers' strike privileges by amending the school code. His plan would require teachers to give 48 hours' notice of a strike and impose a strict timetable for negotiations so that contracts are settled by the time districts draw up their budgets in June of each year.

'Guerrilla Warfare'

One impetus for the increasing interest in strike curbs this year, according to critics, has been the renewed use over the past 2 years of selective strikes. The school-board group says selective walkouts accounted for a quarter of all teachers' strikes during the last school year.

"These are strikes that could be announced 15 minutes before school starts or, in the middle of the day, all the 6th-grade teachers in the district walk off the job or one whole school walks out," Mr. Oravitz said. "Not only have they disrupted the education program immensely, but they have also impacted the safety of children and the routines of family life."

Controversy over selective strikes has also caused a rift between the state's two teachers' unions.

Albert Fondy, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, issued a statement last fall calling the tactic "guerrilla warfare" and vowing to prohibit his locals from using it.

But John M. Yarnovic, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, defends the tactic.

"One unit used the selective strike and, in nine days, resolved its contract, and another, where an injunction was used, was out 50 days,'' he said. "Which is more disruptive?"

Criticism Called Exaggerated

Mr. Yarnovic said much of the criticism being leveled at Pennsylvania teachers' use of their right to strike has been exaggerated. With 501 school districts and 700 bargaining units, Pennsylvania is one of the largest of the states giving teachers the right to strike, he noted.

"More than 90 percent of our locals settle before going to strike," he added.

Moreover, the annual number of strikes has declined since reaching a peak in the mid-1970's.

Mr. Yarnovic said both school boards and union locals could make better use of existing provisions in the law providing for mediation and fact-finding by third parties.

Both teachers' unions oppose any changes in Act 195 itself.

"My concern is that, anytime you open the act up, 60 different types of amendments could be introduced, and you never know what could slip through," Mr. Fondy said. He indicated, however, that he would not oppose restricting selective strikes through other means.

But, with worsening economic conditions in the state and more than 130 teacher contracts being renegotiated this year, attention to the issue does not promise to end soon.

In addition, state judges in two counties last year ruled teachers' strikes illegal. Those decisions, however, are being appealed.

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