Philadelphia teachers will lose their union contracts and have to pay more for medical benefits due to extreme austerity measures, from a district that has been strongly affected by budget cuts. The district has been struggling for a long time with budgetary issues, and has taken serious measures in the past. Schools in the city almost did not open on time this year, and over the course of the last two years, 31 schools in the district were closed. Also, 5,000 staff positions were eliminated during that same time span.
The School Reform Commission has claimed that it needed to make tough decisions, but the latest one has fueled a storm of controversy. It called a brief meeting early on Monday and announced that it had decided to terminate union contracts for teachers and make them pay out-of-pocket for health care premiums that could reach $140 a month. This is something that the teachers never had to do before. This move is expected to produce roughly $44 million, enough to bridge the gap in the budget. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will contest this move in court.
Despite the fact that Philadelphia teachers will lose the union contract and be forced to pay more for medical benefits, Bill Green, the chairman of the School Reform Commission in Philadelphia, said that the moves made by his commission were reasonable. He noted that they were not aiming for salary reductions, and he suggested that having teachers pay what he considered to be a reasonable amount for health care was not outrageous, and that they still have it better than most workers in the country. Green said that he had tried to work with the Philadelphia teachers’ union for the better part of two years, but that they had been difficult and frustrating to work with. He claimed that they had only offered $2 million in concessions during negotiations. This, he said, forced him to make the decision of terminating the union contract, which he described as a last resort.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan claimed that, in fact, the union had been willing to make concessions amounting up to $24 million. He suggested that the arrangements for this Monday announcement by the School Reform Commission were chaotic and, being held at the time that it was held, amounted to an act of cowardice. Both he and Superintendent William R. Hit believe that the problem lies with the state budgetary cuts. The American Federation of Teachers suggested that the Monday morning meeting was a well-coordinated attack on Philadelphia teachers by Governor Tom Corbet, who is a Republican, as he fights for re-election. Just a couple of weeks ago, Corbet signed into law a $2 tax on cigarette packs, which city officials hoped would raise an additional $83 million per year for the school district.
Representative Mike O’Brien of Philadelphia, who is a Democrat, stated that the move by the School Reform Commission amounted to union busting, with the threat that teachers were about to lose their contracts. He said that it was breaking the laws of collective bargaining. Schools in Philadelphia came under state control in 2001, but up to this point they have benefited from having a negotiated contract. Since being taken over by the state, teachers are not permitted the right to strike.
The city will be distributing $15 million worth of funds now, which is the first of three installments for this school year that is expected to total roughly $43.8 million. These funds are the result of the controversial move by the School Reform Commission. As it stands now, despite promises of action to contest this move, Philadelphia teachers will lose their union contract and pay more than ever for their medical benefits, as the budgetary crisis for the city continues. But Philadelphia teachers are not going down without a fight, as a court case looms that will determine the legality of the move by the School Reform Commission.
By Charles Bordeau
Photo by Richard Ricciardi – Flickr