Education

Philadelphia Teachers May Strike Over Layoffs

By Susan Walton & Arthur E. Levine — September 07, 1981 7 min read
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Barring an unexpected--and unlikely--resolution to the city’s financial crisis, about 13,000 Philadelphia teachers will be out on strike as of Sept. 8. In a Sept. 1 vote, union members reaffirmed the leadership’s right to call a strike as necessary.

“Unless something changes between now and September 8, we’ll be out on strike,” a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said on Sept. 2.

Problems in Philadelphia’s schools are many and complex, and extend far beyond the labor-management deadlock.The school district faces a $223 million deficit. As budget-cutting measures, the school board laid off 3,500 teachers, and reneged on a promised 10 percent pay increase negotiated last fall following a 22-day teachers’ strike. Union leader John Murray has told city and district officials his members will strike unless the cuts are rescinded. In addition, the union has filed a breach-of-contract suit against the school board, but board officials contend that the contract isn’t valid, because the funding authority needed to fulfill it resides in the city and state governments--which didn’t sign the contract. The issue is now before Common Pleas Court Judge Harry A. Takiff, and some observers say he is likely to rule that the contract is unenforceable. Judge Takiff also ruled in August that a conservator should be appointed to oversee school system operations and be answerable to him. But the school board is appealing the ruling to a higher court, a procedure which stays the judge’s ruling.

In response to the school’s financial crisis and the likelihood of a strike, Mayor Wiliam Green proposed a 10 percent property tax increase, demanded major concessions from the union and called for $25 million in “management economies” from the school district. But a union lawyer said the mayor’s proposals “don’t affect anything,” and won’t reduce the chances of a walk-out.

The mayor charged, “The fact is that 10 years of political cave-ins, bad management, constant and continual concessions and repeated failures to heed the warning signals have brought Philadelphia’s school system to the bring of complete bankruptcy.” The mayor has long criticized the school board, and persistently called for the resignation of Schools Superintendent Michael P. Marcase.

The mayor’s proposed property tax increase would add $38 million to city revenues, which would be used to back the bonds the city plans to sell. The mayor also asked the union to forgo the 10 percent pay increase, agree to an unspecified amount of immediate layoffs and accept additional reductions in the district’s work force over the next three to five years.

The mayor’s proposals and harsh attack on the school board joins a recent series of reports outlining major flaws in the school system. A joint city-state audit and an eight-part series in The Philadelphia Inquirer have recently attacked mismanagement, too-liberal employee benefits and salaries and other problems. The Inquirer’s year-long inquiry, “The Shame of the Schools,” found “a system managed by a weak, inbred bureaucracy, and dominated by a powerful teachers’ union--a systm that neglects the most basic needs of its 224,000 students.” The newspaper alleged that administrators hire and promote as much on the basis of ethnic backgrounds as merit, and that the system ranks at or near the bottom of large urban school systems in spending for textbooks and school supplies--while ranking first in teacher pay. With one-third of school-age children attending private or parochial schools, the school system doesn’t educate the children of most Philadelphia leaders, including the mayor. More than half of the system’s students come from welfare families.

The newspaper’s own survey of adults also found that most residents are unwilling to pay higher taxes to help the system, and would rather cut programs. “Philadelphians have all but given up on the system,” the paper said.

Given the controversy surrounding the schools, any strike is unlikely to be settled easily or quickly.

The possibility of a strike remains high in Boston, too, where the union is protesting several thousand teacher layoffs that union officials say violate the teachers’ contract. On Aug. 28, the executive board of the Boston Teachers Union (B.T.U.) recommended that the teachers strike on Sept. 8. But School Superintendent Robert R. Spillane, perhaps taking a cue from the federal government, has threatened to fire any striking teachers. b.t.u. members will meet Labor Day to vote on the “appropriate action,” according to union officials.

Negotiations elsewhere around the country reflect the troubled financial state of many school districts. St. Louis’ schools narrowly avoided a strike when teachers and school board officials settled two days after the union’s executive board recommended a strike. In Chicago, the two sides agreed on not one contract but two--the first was rejected by the School Finance Authority (S.F.A.), which must approve the settlement. The s.f.a. meets Sept. 2 to consider the second--and presumably final--contract. Chicago Teachers Union officials have said that they will not return to the bargaining table a third time.

Several other districts in Illinois are already on strike, and union officials for the Illinois Education Association said on Aug. 28 that they anticipated strikes in more than 50 other districts. Settlements in Pennsylvania are also slow in coming, but Pennsylvania State Education Association officials said Aug. 30 that they expected most districts to settle without striking.

In other major school districts around the country, negotiations looked like this as of late last week.

Atlanta: Atlanta teachers are not under contract.

Baltimore: Baltimore teachers will not begin negotiating their next contract until after June 1982; a peaceful school opening is anticipated.

Buffalo: The teachers’ contract was still under negotiation as of Sept. 1.

Cincinnati: Teachers are not negotiating now, but the contract runs out at the end of December 1981, so contract talks will begin this fall.

Cleveland: Teachers are still negotiating, but union officials said on Sept. 2 that they still had no strike plans. The financial picture--both state and local--is so complex that school authorities and union officials are concentrating on noneconomic items until the situation becomes clearer.

Columbus: As of Aug. 31, teachers voted to extend the contract on a day-to-day basis, with a provision that either side may cancel the extension with four days notice. Schools opened as scheduled Aug. 31.

Dade County/Miami: Teachers and school board officials are negotiating “reopeners,” primarily on economic issues. The entire contract will run through June 1982.

Des Moines, Iowa: A new one-year contract began in July, and negotiations for the 1982-83 school year will begin this fall.

Detroit: The current contract in Detroit runs until mid-1982.

Indianapolis: The current contract runs through this school year.

Jefferson County/Louisville, Ky.: The contract was signed the first week of August.

Kansas City: Negotiations were concluded earlier this summer, and a contract was signed.

Los Angeles: With a contract in effect, Los Angeles is negotiating “reopeners"--those parts of the contract left unsettled--affecting this year’s salary, class size, etc. Agreement is expected by the end of September.

Minneapolis: Teachers and school board officials reached a tentative agreement Aug. 23; the ballot count will be completed by Sept. 4.

New Orleans: The two parties agreed on a two-year contract on Aug. 26; schools will open Aug. 31.

New York City: The present contract for New York City teachers runs until Sept. 1982.

Oklahoma City: A one-year contract was signed late in August.

Pittsburgh: The current contract remains in effect through the coming school year.

San Francisco: With a mediator present since Aug. 24, union officials are “cautiously optimistic” that a tentative agreement will be reached by the time schools open Sept. 8.

Seattle: The current contract will remain in effect for the coming year.

Spokane: Teachers and the school board had reached an agreement Aug. 25, pending a Sept. 2 ratification vote.

Toledo: The present three-year contract runs until August of 1982. The issues involving money were renegotiated this year in a “reopeners’’ session.

Washington D.C.: With the old contract extended until Jan. 1982, negotiations were proceeding smoothly as of Aug. 31.

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 1981 edition of Education Week as Philadelphia Teachers May Strike Over Layoffs

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