Sunday, September 29, 2013

The PFT: The most ineffective of Philadelphia's unions?

The recent announcement that SEPTA's TWU Local 234 (the union representing bus drivers and other transit workers) is beginning to meet in order to hammer out a new contract deserves to be viewed in light of the currently ongoing Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract talks and the soon to expire Fraternal Order of Police #5 contract. Like the recently expired PFT contract, the current SEPTA and FOP contracts expire in a few months. Like the SEPTA and FOP contracts, the PFT contract dates back to 2009. All three unions are also taxpayer funded and, as such, targets of city and state politicians seeking to tighten their fiscal belts.

SEPTA's unionized workers recently chose Willie Brown as their new president. Yes, that's the same Willie Brown who led SEPTA through a controversial and inconvenient 6-day strike in 2009 as the World Series ended. That strike even disrupted the polls on Election Day. Willie Brown lost his re-election bid in 2010, but just won back the post (TWU and the FOP hold elections every 3 years, unlike the PFT which holds them every 4 years) and will be negotiating TWU's new contract with SEPTA.

Here is a brief summary of the expiring five-year contract with SEPTA:
  --> $1,250 "signing bonus" to each union member
  --> raises of 2.5% in the second and third year
  --> 3.5% raise in the fourth year
  --> 3% raise in the final year
While this 2009 contract gave an effective cost-of-living adjustment of 12% to the city's bus drivers (with an extra $1250 bonus), the city's teachers received a measly 6% increase as a result of their 2009 contract. Police officers received a whopping 14.7% increase during the same time.

New bus drivers now get $32,900 a year, and drivers with four or more years experience are paid $54,800 a year. Remember, however, that they are due a 3% raise in December. That means a 4th year bus driver (qualification of a high school diploma and driver's license) will be making nearly $56,450, not including time and a half for overtime. Current 4th year teachers with the District earn $54,365. That means, starting in December, many of the city's bus drivers will be earning more than the city's teachers.

In fact, when we look at aggregate earnings over an average 30-year career, Philadelphia bus drivers earn more than Philadelphia teachers with a Bachelor's Degree. The following chart details the difference using the 2013 contract-negotiated salary of each union. I used an extremely conservative estimate of $25,000 per year for undergraduate studies (including tuition, books, housing costs, etc.).

Some may view TWU Local 234's successes in obtaining a fair wage and benefits package for their members as a result of their aggressiveness and willingness to use labor actions. (The Police union is legally barred from going on strike and often settles their contract in arbitration.) SEPTA workers went on strike in both 2005 and 2009, causing vast disruptions to the city and destroying the public image of their union and its leaders, such as Willie Brown. The PFT's president, Jerry Jordan, takes the other approach and attempts to gain as much public support as possible for the teachers and their union. Jerry Jordan has been extremely successful in this respect. Only 11% of the city currently blames the teachers and their union for the woes of the district, with over 80% focusing their ire on those who control the purse-strings, namely the city and state governments. 

Such public support is great, but if one does not use it, then to what end? Despite this massive show of support, the teachers have not called for a true strike in over 30 years... Act 46 be damned. Instead, the PFT leadership chooses to open schools at understaffed levels, tells teachers to "do their best" with what little resources they have, and instructs them to wait it out. Unfortunately, the time for a strike is already past us seeing as the public would most likely say, "Well, you've been working for a month under these deplorable conditions, so they can't be that bad. Why strike now?" 

Meanwhile, as teachers trudge along in overcrowded classrooms with no paper, no technology, no libraries, no counselors, no after-school funds, and no support staff, Willie Brown is vowing to fight for such small but important changes in his members' working conditions as new mirrors on every bus, wanted posters clearly showing those who have assaulted bus drivers, an increase in undercover police or surveillance, and a stern promise to halt any attempts at privatizing mass transit by Harrisburg.

An analysis of the three largest tax-supported unions in the city shows how this lack of aggressive negotiation has hurt Philadelphia's teachers. Perhaps the PFT's ineffectiveness lies in its static and stale leadership. Whereas SEPTA's Willie Brown and the Fraternal Order of Police's John McNesby have both faced challenges to their positions and recently labored "in the trenches" with other members of their workforce, Jerry Jordan hasn't stepped foot in a classroom since 1987!

This chart, compiled from publicly available contracts, shows the ineffectiveness of the PFT when compared to SEPTA's TWU Local 234 and the Police Department's FOP #5. Notice the difference in cost of living wage adjustments each year for the past decade:

Ignore for a minute, if you will, the fact that Philadelphia bus drivers and police officers have had salary increases at nearly DOUBLE the rate of teachers over the past decade. This shortcoming becomes even more glaring when one considers that the inflation rate from January 2004 to the present month stands at 26.28%. This means that, over the past ten years, while bus drivers have gained a real wage increase of 9% (plus a $1250 bonus) and police officers have gained a real wage increase of 14%, teachers have actually taken a PAY CUT OF 6%. This is even more insulting when one considers that, in order to gain employment, teachers (unlike all bus drivers and most police officers) must obtain, at a minimum, a Bachelor's Degree which costs well over $100,000 in average 2013 college tuition costs.

The issue of degrees is even more insulting when one considers how the PFT has negotiated top salaries for Philadelphia teachers in the form of their "Senior Career Teacher" classification. Philadelphia is the only school district in Pennsylvania that requires its teachers to earn a Masters Degree, plus 60 graduate credits AND two teacher certifications in order to earn that top salary. Here is a quick snapshot of some other districts and what their top salary education requirements are:

When one considers the prohibitively expensive cost of post-graduate study, pursuing these courses of higher education can be quite cost restrictive. Other teacher unions around the state, unlike the PFT, have taken this into account and negotiated contract terms with their respective districts that reimburse teachers for a vast majority of that tuition. Where does that leave us? Philadelphia teachers must pay the MOST to earn the LEAST.

Of course, there is one way for Philadelphia teachers to earn more than even the highest paid suburban teacher, avoid these costly education courses, and not worry about the fact that we have effectively taken a 6% pay cut over the past decade. You could join the union leadership. Everyone on the PFT's contract negotiating team earns well over $110,000 and more than any of the highest paid suburban teachers. In fact, one of the first things negotiated in the PFT contract, on page 2, is that "annually, the President of the Federation shall inform the School District of the salary to be paid to each employee on approved leave with the Federation. The School District shall adjust each employee’s salary accordingly." That's right, PFT leadership has the right to tell the District what it must pay them, and can alter it every year!

Jerry Jordan hasn't taught in a classroom since 1987, doesn't have a Master's Degree, and still managed to pull in $150,000. But Jerry Jordan doesn't earn the highest salary in the PFT headquarters on Chestnut Street. That honor goes to ex-PFT president and current AFT-PA president Ted Kirsch, who pulls in nearly $200,000 according to public disclosure documents filed with the Department of Labor.

Let's hope Ted Kirsch, the PFT leadership, and Jerry Jordan emulate their lesser paid counterparts, Willie Brown and John McNesby, and earn those salaries during the current contract negotiations. Now more than ever, Philadelphia's teachers need strong union leadership that will get them competitive wages and better working conditions, not more excuses and continuous rallies that seem to go in circles. If not, we may have to start looking for a new career that respects us as professionals, furnishes us with the work environment we deserve, and helps us bring home a decent wage that provides for our families...

I hear SEPTA is hiring.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Fortnight's Analysis of the News

Rebecca Poyourow choked up when thinking about how finances at Cook Wissahickon Elementary School have worsened despite efforts by her and other parents to fundraise, volunteer in afterschool clubs and organize a tutoring program to offset the effects of cuts in state aid a couple of years ago.  "I feel like we're staring into the abyss," Poyourow said. "I thought we could just put our hands in and make it work." Sabra Townsend hired a lawyer after her son's high school in the Germantown section of the city was closed and he was rejected by the other five schools to which he applied - including the one that was supposed to take children from the closed school."I'm sitting here like, 'What do you expect me to do?'" Townsend said. To be sure, many parents haven't followed the debacle and the little they've heard about it hasn't shaken their intent to send their children back to school. When Borges-Carrera asked parents at freshmen orientation day Thursday how many knew there would be no guidance counselors in the school, about half the hands went up.

  • PA Secretary of Education William Harner (the one who has been holding the city's $45 million hostage along with Budget Secretary Charles Zogby) was ousted earlier last week by Corbett over allegations of "inappropriate behavior" even though he has only held the post for 3 months. Did Harner know some inside information about the expired PFT contract that he did not feel comfortable about, or was this a legitimate firing, or am I over-analyzing? Dr. Carolyn Dumaresq, who now has the final say on the $45 million which is apparently linked to our contract, is now Pennsylvania's 3rd Secretary of Education since Corbett took office in 2011, raising serious concerns about Corbett's ability to govern...
  • The results are in for the Keystone Exams that were rolled out last year and Central and Masterman were the only two high schools in the city with failure rates of under 10%. It's sad how everyone expected the poor performance by mainly minority students in the city's other high schools.... Well it turns out the rich white kids in the suburban districts, like the girl interviewed for this article from Lower Merion, didn't do so well either. According to the ranking member of the PA Senate Education Committee from Chester County talking about students in his county, "since the plan has been phased in, 60 percent of students failed Algebra I and Biology and 45 percent failed Literature. As many as 75 percent of students have had to retake the test."  I guess now that rich white kids in the suburbs can't even pass PA's high-stakes standardized tests, they must be bad! What really got my blood boiling though, was how the article ends and the inherent inequality of how poorer kids are educated in this state is nonchalantly dismissed: Joseph J. O'Brien, executive director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, pointed out that Keystones will not provide new information. He predicted the more affluent districts will do substantially better than the poorer ones. "Thus, we will spend a large amount of money we do not have to provide something we already know," he said.
Where's the money for schools though?

  • Immediately following Monday's membership meeting, the PFT released an AFT funded poll showing the shifting attitudes towards Mayor Nutter and his teacher attacks, thereby showing our increased community support: Sixty-five percent of voters said they were "dissatisfied" with Nutter's education performance, while 30 percent reported being satisfied. Those numbers shifted from May, when 39 percent of voters were satisfied with the mayor's handling of the schools and 54 percent were dissatisfied. Corbett didn't fare any better - his negativity rating in Philadelphia is 48 percent, while the mayor's is 46 percent.
  • Jerry Jordan also had an editorial earlier this week in the paper where he said: "But rather than keep the focus on a conversation about how to increase revenue for schools (and whom to hold accountable for this mess), Mayor Nutter instead wants to shift more attention to work rules in the PFT contract. These kinds of personnel management concerns are worthwhile to discuss, particularly in more secure economic times. But to focus on work rules when our schools can't afford copy paper is an irresponsible distraction from what really matters."

It seems that the PFT's lawyers may be taking the stance that Act 46 was ENACTED in 1998, authorizing the state to take over the District at any time, even though it did not do so immediately. On December 21, 2001, then Secretary of Education Charles Zogby (now Corbett's Budget Secretary and the one who is really pulling the strings to hold the $45 million hostage) actually TRIGGERED Act 46, thus creating the SRC and authorizing the state takeover.

Since then, the District has negotiated, in good faith, with the PFT for a 2004-2008 contract, 2009 extension, 2009-12 contract, and current 2013 extension. That is a LONG TIME of good-faith negotiating and NO contract imposition - thereby creating a legal argument that Act 46 was a one-and-done deal. If a contract was to be imposed, it should have legally been done when the SRC was created, or at the very least when that first contract expired in 2004. The argument would be: Why did the SRC continue to negotiate in good faith, honor those contracts, and not impose their own terms? THAT is why Pedro Ramos, a "seasoned attorney who leads his firm's government, education and social sector practice" (straight from the District's website!) sought Harrisburg's approval to impose contract terms in 2012, instead of doing it outright - Ramos basically doesn't think the SRC still has the authority to do so and imposing terms could lead to a teacher LOCKOUT... and that's a whole different store from a strike. Read more about a possible lock-out in this article with interviews from PFT attorney Deborah Willig, Charles Zogby, and Jerry Jordan.

Keep in mind, however, that the PA Supreme Court is currently composed of 4 Republicans and 3 Democrats... Would this Republican majority vote against a law passed by a Republican Governor and Republican legislature, currently being pushed to the forefront by another Republican Governor and Republican legislature?

PAY CLOSE ATTENTION to what Michael Masch (to be fair, a Democrat) recently had to say on the matter in an exclusive interview with The Notebook:
Does the School Reform Commission even have the right to impose contract terms on the PFT – and unilaterally cut teacher pay – if no contract agreement is reached?“If the SRC is going to take that position, they should cite where they get the authority,” Masch said.Masch was a member of the Board of Education when it was disbanded, and subsequently became a member of the SRC before joining the Rendell administration as state budget secretary and then the District as its finance chief. He has been part of several contract negotiations in these various roles and said he heard several legal opinions on the issue of whether the District can impose its own terms.Ultimately, he said, a judge or judges will have to interpret the state law – so-called Act 46, or the Distressed School Act – that gave the SRC power to run the District.But he cited some relevant portions of the law, arguing primarily that the SRC had one shot to impose contract terms – in the contract right after it was formed. Because the SRC has repeatedly bargained with the PFT on issues such as salaries, benefits and the length of the school day, Masch said that it is arguable that it has forfeited its right to impose terms now, regardless of its financial bind.The law says, “If upon the termination of a collective bargaining agreement in effect on the date of the declaration of distress under this section a new collective bargaining agreement has not been ratified, the School Reform Commission shall establish a personnel salary schedule to be used until a new agreement is ratified.”“Once the SRC is created, the contract in effect expires,” Masch said. “If the union and District refuse to ratify a contract at that moment, the SRC can impose a pay plan. But it doesn’t say that it can do that at any subsequent time in the future.”

Here's something to think about as the School District of Philadelphia, one of the nation's largest public school systems, prepares to open with a skeleton staff on Monday because of a manufactured $304 million shortfall...
  • As we draw closer to war with Syria, remember that EACH Tomahawk Missile costs $1.5 million and continuing to keep our aircraft carriers within striking distance costs $25 million PER WEEK, PER SHIP. This puts a price tag on any type of military engagement at a minimum of $1 billion. When asked about this potential cost, the US Navy chief said these costs would not be "extraordinary" because, if you put it in context, it really won't be when one considers the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan cost over $4 trillion.
It's nice to see where our country's priorities lie.