Teachers in Philadelphia, Boston Vote to Walk Out

By Arthur E. Levine — September 14, 1981 5 min read

After weeks of threats and counterthreats, teachers in Philadelphia and Boston voted to strike last week. The powerful 22,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) walked out last Tuesday, while a divided Boston Teachers Union (BTU) voted the day before to strike on Sept. 21 if its demands are not met.

School systems in both cities are deep financial trouble and have laid off substantial numbers of teachers. Both school boards, having reneged on previous agreements, say they cannot fulfill contracts signed last year because they do not have enough money, and city officials refuse to appropriate additional funding. In both cities, the unions have filed suit, charging breach-of-contract.

The Boston teachers’ postponement of a strike until Sept. 21 represented a compromise, according to some observers. They say that, despite tough talk, the union is seeking a way to achieve its goals without a strike.

Not Much Public Support

They note that the strike vote last week was preceded by hours of internal debate, and that an analysis of the voting suggests only about 1,600 members of the 6,500-member union favored a strike; fewer than 4,000 members took part in the strike-authorization vote, they point out.

Moreover, observers say, there is not much public support for a strike, which would be illegal under Massachusetts law covering state employees and under a no-strike provision in the teachers’ contract.

Kathleen Kelly, president of the Boston union, seemed to confirm these speculations when she told reporters after the vote that “we want to leave no stone unturned in our effort to resolve the crisis without a strike.”

Nonetheless, the BTU insists it will walk out unless the school committee reinstates 960 teachers and 1,200 paraprofessionals who were laid off this summer, in violation, says the union, of its contract.

Threatens To Fire Teachers

Perhaps mindful of the public support that greeted President Ronald Reagan’s strong stand against air-traffic controllers, Robert Spillane, Boston’s new superintendent of schools, has threatened to fire any teachers who walk out and to rehire the 710 tenured teachers who were laid off--acts that would, in essence, break the union, observers feel.

The Philadelphia union, with far more leverage than the Boston union, launched a strike on Sept. 8 that could close down the school system for months.

Angered over the layoffs of 3,500 teachers and the rescission of a 10-percent pay increase, picketers blockaded schools and administrative buildings last Tuesday at 5 a.m. “We intend to shut this system down and keep it shut down,” announced Linda Rubin, a union spokeswoman. ''We will not work while our contract is being violated.”

Given the bitter hostility between all parties in the school situation, and the unlikelihood of an infusion of city funds any time soon, the union threat could become a reality.

To keep the schools open, more than 20 administrators familiar with past strike tactics slept overnight in the district’s central administration office, and sought a court injunction to bar picketers from blocking entranceways.

Main Problem is Money

In both cities, the central problem is a lack of city funds to implement already-signed contracts. It is complicated by continuing criticism by the cities’ mayors of the school districts’ administration.

Boston’s school crisis is worsened by racial tensions between black and white teachers that have been exacerbated by a federal judge’s ruling which seeks to meet minority quotas by protecting most black teachers from layoffs. Black teachers are unlikely to support the strike unless the union drops its appeal of the judge’s order.

Blacks also benefit in Boston from a court-ordered desegregation plan which includes a 20-percent hiring goal for minority employees and $46 million in special programs to aid the disadvantaged. “Those funds are untouchable,” notes one school board official.

Boston’s financial crisis is not new, but it has been compounded by Proposition 2, which limits property-tax levels and has cost the city $87 million.

As a result, Mayor Kevin White imposed a $210-million budget limit on the school board for fiscal 1982, although in fiscal 1981 it had spent $234 million, according to one audit of the system’s finances. The Boston School Committee said that $240 million was needed to continue services at last year’s level, but reluctantly went along with the mayor in late June.

Despite Proposition 2’s presence on the ballot in November 1980, the school board approved the previous August a new three-year contract that ruled out layoffs for two years and boosted salaries by 7.5 percent.

The new budget restraints, the school committee claims, forced it to renege on key provisions of the contract. School officials note, however, that the language of the contract explicitly says it is contingent on the city government’s provision of the necessary funds.

No More Funds Available

The 65,000 students in the Boston school system--down from 92,000 in 1970--returned last week to larger classes, 27 fewer schools, closed swimming pools, and a professional staff smaller by more than 2,000 teachers, counselors, and aides.

The mayor has claimed that there are no additional funds for schools in a city so strapped for revenue that it was forced to lay off 400 policemen and firemen. Ms. Kelley, the BTU president, says there are additional funds available in both the city and school budgets now to at least rehire laid-off teachers.

“It is not a fiscal crisis,” she says. “It’s just politically expedient to attack us.” (A union budget analyst claims there is $72 million in surplus funds in the city budget, a figure not taken seriously by other observers.)

The mayor has rebuffed requests from the school committee for an additional $6 million from the city council, and he is fighting a teachers’ union suit to get him to ask for $8 million from the council to pay for their contracted raises.

Charges of Mismanagement

The mayor, who once likened adding funds to the school system to “feeding the pigs,” has also persistently attacked school-board mismanagement.

Mayor White and school officials are pinning their hopes for added funds on a bill that would authorize the borrowing of $75 million to pay back court-ordered tax rebates. City officials estimate the bill would add up to $45 million to city coffers.

The bill, which has been passed by the city council and signed by the mayor, still requires the approval of the state legislature and governor.

How much of the additional money might be added to the school system hasn’t been decided yet, but the proposal says that public safety--not education--should be the city’s top spending priority.

In the last two weeks, there have been private meetings between Superintendent Spillane and Mayor White over the school budget. While the mayor has not agreed to increase funding, he has softened earlier positions by saying through a spokesman that he would have “an open ear” for further requests. If the tax-rebate bill passes, he says, he would do what he could to “help out.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 1981 edition of Education Week as Teachers in Philadelphia, Boston Vote to Walk Out