Measure To Limit Pa. Teachers'Right To Strike Advances

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The Pennsylvania Senate has unanimously approved a measure imposing the first limits on teachers' right to strike in that state in more than two decades.

The bill as passed represents a compromise between the state school-boards association and the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.

If it clears the House, the bill would permit teachers to strike only if their union local and school-district authorities had failed to come to an agreement and the school board had refused to accept binding arbitration.

Supporters of the measure predict it could dramatically reduce the number of strikes in the state, where teachers almost every year stage more walkouts than in any other state.

Despite its solid support in the Senate, the bill faces criticism from several different quarters. The Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, for example, claims that the legislation would unfairly weaken unions' hands in the collective-bargaining process, without curbing a particularly unpopular strike tactic.

Controversial Strike Tactics

Advocates of a flat ban on strikes, on the other hand, argue that the compromise proposal would not do enough to reduce strike activity.

The frequency of teacher strikes in the Keystone State has been an issue almost since the passage in 1970 of Act 195, which gave teachers and other public employees the right to strike. ('See Education Week, March 6, 1991 .)

Pennsylvania is the largest of the 10 states in which teachers have that right.

Sentiment for reforming the law has grown in recent years, as the number of teacher strikes increased and controversy arose over some of the tactics used by teachers' unions.

This year, described as the worst in memory for strikes, teachers in more than 29 school districts staged work stoppages, according to the state education department.

Four of the walkouts were so-called selective strikes, in which school officials are given only a few hours' notice of a strike or teachers in an individual school walk off the job. The tactic has been widely criticized by parents, for whom the sudden school closings can create child-care nightmares.

In response to growing public concern over the strike issue, lawmakers this fall appeared ready to pass a bill, sponsored by Senators James C. Greenwood, a Republican, and Jeanette F. Reibman, a Democrat, that would have banned teacher strikes altogether and required state judges to choose between contract proposals when both sides reached an impasse.

Recognizing the likelihood of defeat on the issue, the P.s.E.A. agreed just days before a scheduled floor vote on the bill to drop its opposition to any strike curbs and work for a compromise measure.

"Our assessment was the Senate was definitely going to do something about it this time," said Don Morabito, a union lobbyist.

"The worst thing that could've happened didn't happen," he added.

Negotiating Timetable

The new measure sets down a comprehensive timetable that changes the way school boards and teachers' unions negotiate contracts.

Under the plan, contract negotiations would have to begin in January of the year the contract expires. If no agreement is reached within a month, the state Bureau of Mediation has to be called into the process. After Feb. 20, either side can request fact-finding, a process in which an outside negotiator holds hearings and makes recommendations for a contract proposal.

If May 1 arrives without an agreement, either side can request binding arbitration. If the district seeks it, teachers must go along. If the district rejects binding arbitration, the teachers are free to strike.

An arbitration panel would have to render a decision by June 30, when districts must set their budgets for the coming school year.

Joseph Oravitz, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said his organization agreed to the compromise because it did not force districts to go to binding arbitration. School-board members had argued that doing so would take away some of their autonomy.

"if it happens the way it should," Mr. Oravitz said, "this will eliminate 99 percent of the strikes we've been having year after year."

But the P.F.T. objects to the binding arbitration provision demanded by the school boards. Albert Fondy, president of the union, said the pr@ posal was "unbalanced and unacceptable" because teacher unions can only enter binding arbitration with the consent of school boards, and not the other way around.

Mr. Fondy also pointed out that the measure does not address the issue of selective strikes, which his union banned last year.

"If selective strikes are the problem," he said, "let's ban them rather than remove fairness from the bargaining process."

Some of the strongest criticism of the measure, though, has come from Representative Stephen F. Freind, a Republican, who, for the past several years, has sponsored a much stricter bill against teacher strikes.

Mr. Freind has called the Senate bill "window-dressing and public relations,'' adding, that those who believe that this will deter teachers' strikes are only deluding themselves."

Vol. 11, Issue 09, Page 16

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