Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Forcing the SRC to Pay for Lost PFT Wages (PART II)

(This entry is the second in a series. If you have not read my previous Forcing the SRC to Pay for Lost PFT Wages then please do so now, seeing as this entry will not make sense without that relevant information.)

Here is the PFT contract negotiating team's response as to why they are not pursuing the legal course of action laid out in my first blog post:

Setting the Record Straight: PA Supreme Court Ruling on Act 696, Step Raises and Lane Changes

It appears that there is incorrect information circulating concerning this week’s decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and its impact on step raises and lane changes. The PFT feels that it is harmful to our members to have--and spread--incorrect information, so we want to set the record straight.
The law in Pennsylvania has long-established that a public employer has no obligation to pay step and longevity increases after a contract hiatus, i.e., the period of time after a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires, but before the parties reach a new successor agreement. In Fairview School District v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 499 Pa. 539, 454 A.2d 517 (1982), the PA Supreme Court first declared that a public employer’s obligations during the status quo do NOT extend to providing step increases during a contract hiatus.
Similarly, our Commonwealth Court held that public employers have no legal duty to pay longevity increases after a CBA expires. Pennsylvania State Park Officers’ Association v. Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, 854 A.2d 674 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2004), appeal denied, 582 Pa. 704, 871 A.2d 194 (2005).
Subsequent decisions by our courts have reaffirmed these holdings. See AFSCME District Council 47 v. City of Philadelphia, 53 A.3d 93 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012); Neshaminy Fed. of Teachers Local Union 1417 v. PLRB, 417 A.2d 837 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2008). In fact, no Pennsylvania court has ever held that step and longevity increases are still required during a contract hiatus. Nor has anyone taken the novel position that the Public School Code requires a public school district to pay step and longevity increases after contract hiatus based on the Public School Code. This is true despite the fact that our appellate courts have repeatedly addressed what are the requirements for public school districts regarding step and longevity increases after a CBA expires.
While the PFT would certainly be thrilled if the Court's decision required the School District to implement the step increases and lane changes, it simply does NOT do that.

While I agree that no Pennsylvania court has ever given labor union step and longevity increases during a contract hiatus, public school teachers are in a group all of their own. All labor unions in Pennsylvania must abide by the laws and decisions set forward by the Public Employe Relations Act (1970), or PERA. However, public school employees also have legal recourse under the Pennsylvania School Code.

All of the court cases listed above by the PFT's contract negotiating team are cases that have been decided under the purview of PERA or other laws - BUT NONE HAVE BEEN DECIDED USING THE PA SCHOOL CODE. While the PFT's contract negotiating team claims that my approach is a "novel approach" that has never been taken, I ask, "So what?" 

It is time to test uncharted legal waters.

The most important case cited above in the official PFT response, Fairview School District v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 499 Pa. 539, 454 A.2d 517 (1982) is vital in that it carries the authority of the PA Supreme Court, the highest court in the commonwealth. It states "that the School District's refusal to pay stepped up salaries did not constitute a disruption of the status quo." While that case bases its decision on the Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Law (1937), NOT THE PA SCHOOL CODE, it is also important to note that there was a dissenting opinion. Justice Larsen, in going against the majority opinion, stated, "I would hold that teachers working under the extended agreement were entitled to compensation commensurate with their years of service, and that the school district's failure to increase the teachers' salaries to reflect an additional year of service constituted a refusal to maintain the status quo."

Seeing as we just worked so hard as a union to get three Democratic judges elected to the PA Supreme Court - judges who have shown they are friendly to labor and more than likely to agree with that dissenting opinion - isn't it time to bring the matter to the PA Supreme Court's attention once again?

Finally, if the PA Supreme Court's current composition isn't enough to spur our PFT contract negotiating team's legal action in pursuit of our step and degree back pay, THERE IS IN FACT LEGAL PRECEDENT IN USING PA SCHOOL CODE TO OBTAIN BACK PAY. The PA Supreme Court in Mifflinburg Area Education Association v. Mifflinburg Area School District, 555 Pa. 326 724 A.2d 339 (1999) refers to the very same PA School Code section that I referred to in my first blog post entry, Section 11-1142 of the PA School Code. The PA Supreme Court stated in that decision that "the language contained in Section 1142(a) protects professional school district employees from the patent unfairness of disregarding past years of service with the same school district." In fact, Commonwealth Court, the PLRB, and the American Arbitration Association have ALL used the Mifflinburg decision in siding with teachers when it comes to salary placement on step schedules for past experience. 

While, granted, every case is unique - in light of the recent decision eliminating the SRC's power to erase PA School Code, the election of 3 PA Supreme Court justices who are friendly to our cause, and the aforementioned legal precedents of using Section 11-1142 of the PA School Code to obtain salary step adjustments - I believe that it is more than logical to ask the PFT contract negotiating team to instruct our excellent lawyers at Willig, Williams, & Davidson to pursue this course of action in the courts. 

At worst, we lose a court case and are back at square one - frozen salaries for the past four years. 

At best, we make the members of the PFT who have not yet reached Step 11 financially whole.