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What will Jerry Jordan do?
That is the question of the moment. The media is focused on City Council and Harrisburg, and what they are doing to raise the money so desperately needed for the Philadelphia public schools. Soon, though, that will be yesterday’s news.
So far, the plot line is this. The schools, like an ocean liner listing in rough seas, need $304 million. Dire consequences will follow if they do not get it. The children quiver in fear. The acrid odor of crisis fills the air. The district has taken 3,800 workers and threatened to throw them overboard to lighten the load — unless the state and the city and the teachers union come up with enough money, or concessions, or, for God’s sake, something, to spare them.
In our previous episode, it looked as if the city and state would not do what needed to be done. Council dithered and griped, as usual. Gov. Corbett – a strange, sphinx-like man – said nothing, as usual. The clock ticked. It seemed the plan to get $304 million for the schools was doomed. Queue up ominous music. Cut to workers lined up, ready to walk the plank.
Then, suddenly, the skies began to clear. Council did what it had to do. The state said it would do what needed to be done. The governor spoke – he actually spoke – and said he would help, too. It’s not a sure thing, but it is a good thing. Still, it is not enough. The district is still short of the $304 million.
So, now we all turn to Jerry Jordan and his Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the union that represents all of the district’s teachers and many of the school professionals due to be laid off.
What will Jerry do?
The School District has a list, a long list. It wants teachers to take a pay cut. It wants teachers to contribute toward their health insurance. It wants teachers to work a longer day –without additional compensation.
It wants the union to shred many of the rules in its 171-page contract – rules that govern assignment to schools via seniority, that give raises based on experience and academic attainment only, that include a dozen different clauses teachers see as protective of their rights. It would result in a fundamental shift of power – away from the teachers, to principals and the district.
In the eyes of PFT leaders, the concessions sought will crush the union. They would destroy the rights and prerogatives built up over so many years. Teachers see these provisions as protections, not only for themselves, but also for the children. To give them up would expose them and the children to assaults from the mayor, the superintendent, the School Reform Commission, the politicians, the nefarious outside reformers – and to forces they neither like nor trust.
The way teachers see it, an odd and inexplicable thing has occurred in recent years. Instead of being seen as heroes in the mission to educate the urban poor, they have been cast as villains. Instead of being seen as the solution, they are seen as the problem. The problem? Them?
But, somehow it seems validated by the exodus of so many parents and their children fleeing the district for charter schools. How could they do this to us? How can charters – some of which offer half-hearted education – attract so many followers? Given the choice, why do parents and children run away? Fifty-five thousand children in charters today, an additional 30,000 on waiting lists? The flight to charters. The deep cuts in aid. The drumbeat of criticism about their poor performance. Could it part of a larger conspiracy to undermine public education?
Given the circumstances, you can’t blame teachers for feeling paranoid — in addition to besieged, angry and hurt. They voice their pain in their message boards and letters to the editor, railing against the unfairness of it all.
Some demand a strike. They want a return to the days when a feisty PFT would head for the picket line rather than make concessions. They want the days when the union had zero tolerance for givebacks. Some want their leaders, especially Jordan as PFT president, to lead an attack against the dark and hostile forces arrayed against them — as if he possessed the magical powers of a Gandalf.
Reality is so much more boring than fantasy, and the reality is that Jordan can do little, other than to negotiate a surrender. His best chance of preserving teacher’s pay and prerogatives has passed.
The union’s contract with the district expires Aug. 31. Had Jordan been able to keep talking and talking and talking up to and past that date, he could have applied the tactic used by city unions and played rope-a-dope. The municipal unions haven’t had a contract in four years. Faced with demands to make concessions on benefits and work rules, they have stalled, freezing their existing contracts in place.
Jordan cannot do that. He has been maneuvered into a position where the union has been portrayed as one of the parties that must provide a share of the $304 million needed. Now that the city and the state have stepped forward and say they will do their part, the onus will fall on the PFT. If it fails to deliver its “share,” the layoffs will take place. The union will be blamed.
Can the union strike rather than concede? Here the deck is stacked again. The law that let the state take over the district specifically forbids a strike, and says that teachers who walk off the job can have their teaching certificate lifted by the Secretary of Education. It’s an inelegant device — like a cudgel with spikes — but it will be effective.
Any such action by the state is likely to be challenged in the courts by the union — and it could win that case, but not soon enough to save the jobs of the 3,800.
As some members have urged, should Jordan ignore the law and tell his members to walk anyway? If he did, how many would follow him to the barricades?
They harken back to the 1970s, when the PFT earned a reputation as a fist-in-the face union. It went on strike seven times between 1969 and 1981. The seventh was a donnybrook, a 50-day strike in ’81 to prevent Mayor William Green from eliminating a 10 percent pay increase due union members under their contract. Union leaders were sent to jail during that one for defying a judge’s order to return to work.
That was then, this is now. Most current members of the PFT were children when that strike took place. Fifty-five percent of teachers were hired after 2000. Only 15 percent were working in the district in the 80s or before.
To complete the profile, 73 percent of teachers are women, 67 percent are white, and they have an average tenure of 12 years as district employees. Would this workforce — many of whom are in their 30s and 40s — be willing to risk their careers by striking? Doubtful. They see themselves as professionals, not shop-floor radicals.
Take away the power to strike — de facto or by law — and you take away a union’s sword and shield.
So, as this episode ends, the situation looks dire for Jerry and the union.
Perhaps there might be a way out, with emphasis on the word perhaps. The measures taken so far by the city and promised by the state include a “tax” part that as of next year could yield as much as $210 in additional revenue for the district. It includes a $2-a-pack cigarette tax in Philadelphia (annual yield of $90 million) and keeping an additional 1 percent tacked onto the local sales tax (annual yield of $130 million). In addition, the city is going to shell out an additional $28 million in aid for the district this year and the state is talking about direct aid in the $100 million range. None of this is money in hand as of now and some of it won’t be coming in until after June 2014.
But, is does promise a long-term flow of additional money. It could give the district some breathing room.
The state has already signaled what it wants from the teachers. William Harner, the state’s new Secretary of Education, stated in an Inquirer op-ed that he wants Philly teachers to contribute toward their health and welfare costs.
The district now pays 100 percent. Most teachers in the state contribute anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of their salaries for these benefits. If Philly teachers did the same, it would save the district between $20 and $30 million a year.
Harner also wants teachers to work a longer day.
In Philadelphia schools, the workday is seven hours and four minutes. Harner wants an eight-hour day. (Again, teachers in most districts work longer than 7 hours and 4 minutes.) In the past, the union has demanded additional pay for additional minutes. If it forgoes that demand, it will not provide the district with any new cash, but it will save $70 to $80 million the district would otherwise have to pay teachers in additional compensation. Could that savings be counted towars the $122 million “share” demanded of the teachers? No one knows for sure.
Would these two concessions be enough? Doubtful. The School Reform Commission and Superintendent William Hite want to make the most of this crisis and extract work rule concessions from the PFT — concessions the district has sought unsuccessfully for decades. For decades, the PFT beat them back.
Today, the situation is different. With an unsure membership, the threat of so many jobs lost, facing the formidable power of the city and the state, the union may have to concede in order to survive.
Time is running out. June 30 — the day the layoffs go into effect — is fast approaching. Decisions must be made. Slowly, we turn and ask: What will Jerry Jordan do?