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.

For Schoolteachers, Collective Bargaining Protects Free Speech

by Christopher Paslay


Quinnipiac University recently polled 1,800 registered voters and found that 63 percent believed that public-sector workers should pay more for their health benefits and contribute more to their retirement programs.  The same poll also revealed that 42 percent felt that public-sector workers are paid “too much,” as opposed to 35 percent who said they are paid “about right.”


Interestingly, when it came to the issue of collective bargaining, Americans were split: forty-five percent said they supported limits on employees’ negotiating rights while 42 percent said they were against bargaining restrictions.     


On Friday, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Christine M. Flowers (who is for the record one of my favorite local writers) weighed-in on the issue of unions by commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 immigrant seamstresses.  Flowers went on to write that these women died because they had no bargaining power or workplace protections.  In essence, there was no one to tell their bosses that it was illegal to lock the exit doors during the work day.


Of course, Flowers went on to write that although unions started out as a shield, they ultimately turned into a sword:     


“. . . While unions did good things for their members and improved working conditions in blue-collar industries (the ones that built, fed and clothed the nation), the tactics used to obtain fair deals for the seamstresses and steel workers have now been manipulated by others with a more partisan agenda.


In many cases, those ‘others’ work in the public sector, and their ‘collective bargaining’ has been turned into a form of public bribery. By taking their members’ dues and contributing big sums to the political campaigns of officials who – when elected – can sweeten their contracts, public-sector unions have gone from puppet to puppet master.


‘A decent living’ became a euphemism for bloated salaries and way-better-than-average perks at taxpayer expense. And tenure all of sorts has turned into immunity for the mediocre. . . .”


Flowers’ quip about tenure is clearly a jab at schoolteachers, but I won’t hold this against her.  Her views are normally right on point, and I have the utmost respect for her as a writer and thinker.   


But regardless of Flowers’ sweeping generalization about schoolteachers, there is another issue at the root of unions and collective bargaining that is rarely analyzed or discussed.  Buried beneath health benefits, pensions and salary is the issue of free speech, a right that has been denied schoolteachers by the courts in recent years.          


Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of history at New York University, wrote about the importance of collective bargaining in terms of its impact on the free speech of teachers in a March 1st article in the Philadelphia Inquirer headlined, “In fight for workers, free speech is at stake.” (To read the article in its entirety, which I strongly suggest, click here.)


Zimmerman opened his article by stating the following:    


“In 2001, high school English teacher Shirley Evans-Marshall gave her class a copy of the American Library Association’s ‘100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.’ She asked her students to choose a book on the list and explain why it was controversial.


But the assignment itself was too controversial for Evans-Marshall’s Ohio school district, which declined to renew her contract.


Evans-Marshall sued, claiming a violation of her First Amendment rights. And last year, a federal appeals court ruled that she didn’t have any – at least not in her own classroom.


‘The right to free speech … does not extend to the in-class curricular speech of teachers in primary and secondary schools,’ the court declared.


That’s why teachers still need collective bargaining, which lies at the heart of this winter’s bitter battles over public-employee unions. . . .


. . . Historically, these agreements have protected teachers’ salaries, benefits, and pensions. Now that the courts have gutted teachers’ academic freedom, however, the only way they can retain it will be via collective bargaining. . . .”


Zimmerman’s point is well taken.  For those who think teachers’ unions and their collective bargaining power is simply a tool to win underserved benefits and cushy pensions, think again. 


Collective bargaining is at the heart of a teacher’s right to shape curriculum—or put another way, their right to use their expertise as an educator to determine how they will deliver instruction.  It is also at the heart of their right to make their voices and opinions heard, as was the case (at least in part) with Philadelphia School District teacher Hope Moffett; without the collective power of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Hope would have been terminated for protesting the reconstitution of Audenried High School where she currently teaches English. 


As a public servant and a dues-paying member of a union, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for workers to contribute more for their health insurance and pensions in light of the current economy.  However, America’s recession and the financial woes of many states should not be used as an excuse to cripple unions and take away the First Amendment rights of public workers.