Pedro Ramos is not Scott Walker, and Pennsylvania is not Wisconsin

by Christopher Paslay

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos may be emboldened by Scott Walker’s recent victory over Big Labor, but the Keystone State is a far cry from the Badger State.       

It appears that Philadelphia School Reform Commission chairman Pedro Ramos is suffering from Scott Walker Syndrome.  His recent attempt to push legislation that would extend the SRC’s power to nullify union contracts and unilaterally dictate salary and benefits to School District employees is curiously timed.  You’d almost think Ramos has become emboldened by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s Assembly Bill 11, also known as his “Budget Repair Bill,” which limits collective bargaining by public-sector unions, caps salary increases, and forces workers to pay more for their pensions and health benefits.

Members of the Philadelphia Democratic House delegation, however, do not seem to be as enamored by Scott Walker’s recent victory over Big Labor.  Walker may have survived Tuesday’s recall election, but this hasn’t inspired Pennsylvania state legislators to get on board with the SRC’s surprise legislative amendment that would further cripple School District unions and their bargaining power.

Although Pennsylvania’s Act 46 already strips the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers of their right to strike—giving the SRC the power to unilaterally impose contact terms and limit collective bargaining—Ramos feels he needs even more power.

According to Kristen Graham’s 6/8/12 Inquirer story:

State Rep. Michael H. O’Brien (D., Phila.), who was at the meeting, said Ramos admitted the SRC was attempting to sell a legislative amendment Ramos needed because current law “didn’t give the SRC enough juice,” in O’Brien’s words.

The SRC’s new ploy for more power was apparently an unpleasant surprise for many, including Mayor Nutter and members of the Philadelphia Democratic House delegation.

Someone, perhaps Nutter himself, needs to tell Pedro Ramos that he’s not Scott Walker.  And while he’s at it, he needs to explain to the SRC that Pennsylvania (and for the purposes of this argument, Philadelphia) is not Wisconsin.  For starters, Pennsylvania has a balanced budget (although the Philadelphia School District is still facing a deficit, but this deficit was created by the SRC itself).  Second, Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System was just overhauled in 2010, cutting pension benefits and increasing member contributions.  Third, collective bargaining by the largest teachers’ union in the state—the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers—has already been severely limited for over a decade by the passing of Act 46.

Here’s a comparison between Pennsylvania and Wisconsin on three hot button issues: collective bargaining rights; retirement; and health insurance.

Collective Bargaining

Massive protests broke out in Wisconsin last year when Governor Scott Walker passed his Budget Repair Bill, which limited the collective bargaining power of public-sector unions.  According to the Greenbay Press Gazette:

The bill would make various changes to limit collective bargaining for most public employees to wages. Total wage increases could not exceed a cap based on the consumer price index (CPI) unless approved by referendum.

Contracts would be limited to one year and wages would be frozen until the new contract is settled. Collective bargaining units are required to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union.

Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues. These changes take effect upon the expiration of existing contracts.

But when you compare this to the restrictions imposed on the largest teachers union in Pennsylvania by the passing of Act 46 over a decade ago, it is relatively small potatoes.  According to an article in the University of Penn’s Journal of Labor and Employment Law:

The state takeover of Philadelphia city schools will obviously have an effect on Philadelphia teachers’ ability to bargain collectively for contract rights. . . . While the system is under the control of the SRC, teachers are prohibited from striking in order to secure contract rights. . . . For example, teachers could be faced with a significantly lengthened school year, less preparation time, and larger classes, all without the opportunity to bargain for any compensation for these impositions. . . . Also, the district would not be required to discuss “decisions related to reduction in force.” This allowance for the district, coupled with the fact that, under Act 86, the SRC may make decisions to suspend professional employees without regard to tenure protection has potentially dire consequences for the professional security of educators. In a situation involving layoffs, for instance, teachers who have years of experience could be suspended before new hires.

In effect, under Act 46, the SRC already has the power to unilaterally impose contract terms, overhaul traditional schools and turn them into charters, lengthen the school day and year without compensating workers, layoff teachers regardless of seniority or tenure, and takes away the union’s right to strike, among other things.

As for union dues: Philadelphia public school teachers can opt out of joining the union, but they are still required by the state to pay something called “Fair Share,” which basically means that they have to pay union dues anyway, which is about 1 percent of their salary.

Pensions and Retirement

Until Scott Walker passed his Budget Repair Bill, state, school district, and municipal employees in Wisconsin paid little to nothing for their pensions.  Now members of the Wisconsin Retirement System must contribute 50 percent of the annual pension payment, which means public school teachers have to start contributing about 5.8 percent of every check toward their pensions.

Since 2001, Philadelphia school teachers, who are members of Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System, were required to pay 7.5 percent of every check to their pensions.  Legislation passed in 2010 now requires new teachers to pay 10.3 percent of every check toward their pensions if they want to receive the same pension as those hired before December of 2010; those new teachers who agree to accept a modified pension multiplier (smaller pension) can continue to pay at the 7.5 percent rate.

Health Insurance

Before the Walker bill, Wisconsin state employees paid about 6 percent of their health insurance costs.  Now they will be forced to kick in double that—about 12 percent of the average cost of annual premiums.

Philadelphia public school teachers have excellent benefits, and at little cost.  According to the current contract between the PFT and PSD, teachers have to contribute at most 3 – 5 percent of annual premiums, and many teachers pay nothing.  Co-pays do continue to go up, but teachers are in a good position here; it’s inevitable that in the future, sacrifices will have to be made, and employees may have to kick in more money.  This, of course, can be agreed upon at the bargaining table, and there is absolutely no need for new legislation to be proposed by the SRC to get this done.

The SRC’s recent attempt to push legislation to further cripple School District unions is uncalled for.  The SRC has already sent layoff notices to 2,700 service workers who are SEIU 32BJ union members, and is planning to privatize neighborhood schools and cut unions by turning 40 percent of District schools into charters by 2017.

Some can argue what Walker did in Wisconsin was justified; unions in the Badger State needed to be reeled-in to keep Wisconsin from falling off an economic cliff, which is why 30 percent of union workers voted in Tuesday’s recall election to keep Walker in office.  But the situation is a bit different in the Keystone State.

Pedro Ramos is no Scott Walker.  Shame on him for trying to use Walker’s momentum to push his misguided and unnecessary legislation to further cripple organized labor in Philadelphia.

9 thoughts on “Pedro Ramos is not Scott Walker, and Pennsylvania is not Wisconsin

  1. If schools want to save money one way is to stop paying for the health insurance of the spouses of school teachers who have jobs which could provide them with health care. Why school systems do this is beyond me because it must be very expensive. Maybe we could even save some of the jobs of the custodians, cleaners etc who are being laid off if Philly did not pay for health care for spouses who work. A working spouse should be required to get health insurance from his or her work place. Where my husband worked the family had to even split up the coverage of the children. One child covered by mother’s health insurance, one child by husband’s health insurance. The business world does not operate like the government world when it comes to health care.

    As a retired teacher with VERY expensive health care bills ( remember when you retire in Philly you have to pay so start saving now because the costs are way more than those co-pays folks complain about) I think it would be great if the district could help us in some way instead of providing free health care to all of the spouses who have jobs and who do not work for the District. The dental insurance I buy from the union is so poorly funded no dentist will accept it.

    Be prepared. When you retire, at least from Philly ( I believe many suburban schools pay for health care for retired teachers and spouses with tax dollars) you will paying for health care. ( average costs in today’s world $1,000-$1,500/month not including large deductibles) .

    My total for a year for health care is always close to $20,000. My deductible plus co-insurance this year is $6,000. Same for my husband.

    The public who pay for health care do not have much sympathy for folks getting it practically for free. Free seemed to OK back in the hey day of pre recession with the stock market soaring, but now, not so OK. Not with so many suffering with no health care or unable to afford it.

    As Bill Maher would say, get out of the glass bubble.


    • Kathy,
      No agrument here; I agree wih you completely. Times are changing, and everyone must do their part (my buddy who teaches in North Penn School District pays $120 per paycheck for his health benefits. I didn’t believe this until he showed me his pay stub). Your idea about not covering spouses who have their own insurance at their job is a good idea.

      If you think it is bad now, just wait until ObamaCare is passed (in whole or part). This ill-conceived, vague, unpopular, and financially unsustainable bill (did I mention unconstitutional?) will jack-up costs ever higher, cut quality, choice, and leave important medical decisions up to unelected politicians. There’s got to be a better way to provide all Americans with adequate health care. Food for thought.

      Thanks for writing.

      Chris Paslay

      • Chris,
        You are a bright guy, I read all your posts but really, you are going to have support some of the statements you just made about Obama’s health program with some facts. I know this is a reading blog, so feel free to write to me off list and explain how unelected politicians are going to make medical decisions. I already have unelected insurance workers telling me which medical tests I can have and which medicines i can take. They tell me which doctors I can see and which hospitals I can go to. My choices are already limited. I think Obama was trying to help the uninsured have what Philly teachers already have- the public option- health care paid for by tax dollars but he was going to do one thing you don’t have to do- make folks pay for their health care but give some federal support. Costs are already skyrocketing with the free market system we now have. My monthly fee for health care has gone from $400/month to $1300/ month in 6 years. And just try to shop in this free health care market. No insurance company wants anyone in what i call the unwanted gap- 60-65.

        When you ask a doctor in today’s system how much something cost they have no idea. The office workers are clueless. Everyone just assumes that no one cares or needs to care what something costs. Most folks today with health care like the teachers( paid for by tax dollars) go to the doctor( any doctor) whenever they want, get plenty of unneeded tests, get blood work done every 3 months, get second opinions, but their meds at the local pharmacy( i can’t do that) and pretty much do whatever they want. The rest of us weigh the costs of each medical purchase because we are paying until we reach the end of our deductibles( mine is $6000)

        You want to bring down costs- everyone should have a large deductible. That will bring down costs for the School District and force Americans to face the real costs of health care. When you have a large deductible you are forced to finally look at prices just like when you buy any other expensive item.

        I think Obama is right in asking all Americans to purchase health care too. I know we disagree on that but in the real market of health care you see it is needed.


  2. Hey Kathy,

    As I said in my above comment, I believe ALL Americans should have adequate healthcare; let’s establish this point right now. And like I said in my above comment, there has to be a better way to achieve this other than the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare.”

    In particular, I stated that Obamacare was unpopular, financially unsustainable, unconstitutional, will cut quality, will cut choice, and leave medical decisions up to unelected politicians. Here are some facts (that you requested) to support my statements.

    Obamacare is unpopular: nearly 70 percent of Americans want the law and/or the individual mandate (the clause that forces ALL Americans to buy health insurance) tossed out by the Supreme Court.

    Obamacare is financially unsustainable: the president was less-than-honest when he said that Obamacare was going to SAVE money and help cut the national debt. The Congressional Budget Office released an updated cost estimate and it turns out that Obamacare will cost over $1.76 trillion over the next 10 years—nearly TWICE the original number stated by the President. After 2021, it will cost more than a quarter of $1 trillion every year, forever. This is not financially or economically responsible, especially in light of America’s current debt; just look at Europe and see how things are going there. Who is going to pay for this? How? My guess is that premiums will go up (and taxes), and quality will go down.

    Obamacare is unconstitutional: it violates the Commerce Clause because it forces a private citizen to engage in a private contract with a private entity—it forces you to buy a product (and a poor one at that). Many social justice advocates believe that this is okay—it’s helping poor people get health coverage. But I am principle-based, and believe in the Constitution and free enterprise; this can set a very real and very dangerous precedent. There has to be a better, LEGAL way.

    Obamacare will cut the quality of health care in America: the National Physicians Survey, conducted by Thomson Reuters/HCPlexus and polling 3,000 American doctors, concludes that Obamacare would raise spending, premiums, debt, and most notably, cut the quality of care. Over 80 percent of the doctors surveyed strongly believed the quality of health care would decline over the next five years.

    Obamacare will cut choice: to fund Obamacare, the President is cutting $500 billion from Medicare. Specifically, he is targeting the market-oriented Medicare Advantage program, which allows seniors (14 million of them) to choose their plan and coverage. When the Medicare Advantage program goes, the choice goes. Premiums will go up, plans will change, and quality will be watered-down. But here’s the kicker: these cuts are scheduled to go into effect this fall, right before the November presidential election; bad timing for sure. Realizing this, the Obama administration, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services, are taking $8 billion in tax payer dollars to postpone the cuts to Medicare until AFTER the election.

    Obamacare will leave medical decisions to unelected politicians: Obama bureaucrats have already decided: 1) contraception, sterilization and abortion pills are classified as medical prevention (and that Catholic organization must go against their religious principles and pay for birth control). 2) The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, established under Obamacare to slice $500 billion from Medicare, is given the power to decide which treatments are most cost-effective and which ones are not. Not “effective,” but “cost-effective.” Maybe they might think you are too old for a certain treatment or medicine. Or that the treatment—e.g. annual breast exams for women starting at age 40—should be delayed until 50. Their decision. Bureaucrats. Not your personal doctor. Not YOU.

    ALL Americans deserve health coverage. But we must find a better way than Obamacare.

    PS: You stated, “Most folks today with health care like the teachers (paid for by tax dollars) go to the doctor (any doctor) whenever they want, get plenty of unneeded tests, get blood work done every 3 months, get second opinions, buy their meds at the local pharmacy (I can’t do that) and pretty much do whatever they want.” With all due respect, I beg to differ. I’ve never gotten an “unneeded test,” gotten blood work every three months (maybe once a year for a physical), get second opinions (I trust my family doctor), and “do whatever I want.”

    To help keep current health insurance viable (and constitutional), to support the free market, keep up quality and choice, and to find a workable way to get every American insured, I’m willing to contribute more for my insurance, pay higher co-pays, etc.

    I’m willing to do my part.

    I hope I answered your questions.

    Chris Paslay

  3. Well this coming week is supposed to be the week the Supreme court rules on the health care plan. I am guessing you will get your wish. Too bad for the rest of us though who have to try and maneuver through the so called free market of health care. It is not easy and I do know it is very expensive. I like the Obama plan as there are parts that save me money like getting my mammogram paid for without having to spend through my entire $2000 deductible. I also know that the Medicare Advantage program you mentioned is expensive for the gov’t costing more than regular Medicare because it has perks like free gym memberships. This program is called Silver Sneakers and is very popular at my local Y. I have to pay my gym membership and help pay for all those senior citizens too. Oh well. I would have liked the part about insurance companies having to take folks with pre-existing conditions too. When I first retired I tried to buy health care on the open market as a way to save money. That failed as it is hard to be 60 and not have any previous health care issues. Health care is pretty much a mess for folks not getting it anymore through their jobs or for folks who have lost jobs or have jobs that don’t provide it. Enjoy what you have. It won’t be there when you retire.

  4. Kathy,

    I agree that health care is a right; I’ve never claimed otherwise. But the solution isn’t shoving some bill down America’s throat because it is assumed that we will never be able to come to terms with a better, more appropriate plan. And what makes you think that Obamacare will even work as promised? Obama has already been disingenuous on three issues: one–he said Obamacare would SAVE money, and it is actually costing TWICE as much as the original estimate; two–he said you will get to keep your plan if you are satisfied with it, but in the case of Medicare, people’s plans will change; three–he promised Catholic organizations that they wouldn’t be forced to violate their religious principles and cover birth control, but he pulled a bait-and-switch on that. What else will he decide to change? What is actually in the 2,700 pages? Once the bill goes into effect, it’s all in the hands of Obama and his bureaucrats. As I said before, we need to find a better way. Don’t assume you have no choice.


  5. I’m just amazed. For such a bright guy whom I’ve even met a few times, how can you be so misinformed about the Affordable Healthcare Act? How did those theories work out for you when the Act ws deemed a) constitutional, b) that relgious organizatons would NOT be forced to cover certain services (the insuranace companies would and c) savings from Medicare would not affect benefits? Its almost as if you’ve had a drink from the right wing kookaid faucet. Talk to a few people who were not covered for anything but who now are,and then tell us what a better way would be. This only a first step, and far from perfect but it sure bets what we had.

    • Hi,

      Quick question: If religious organizations are NOT being forced to cover birth control against their principles, how come 43 Catholic institutions have filed 12 separate lawsuits against Obamacare’s birth control rule, including the University of Notre Dame, Catholic University of America, the Archdiocese of Michigan, and the Archdiocese of New York?

      Second: cutting $716 billion from Medicare to fund Obamacare is absolutely going to impact Medicare benefits and affect people’s plans.

      Third: If you believe that forcing Americans to buy a product is constitutional, so be it; I don’t. We’ll have to agree to disagree.

      Thanks for writing.

      Christopher Paslay

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