Neshaminy Dispute Shines Spotlight on Teacher Strikes
Pennsylvania legislators introduced bills in 2011 to prohibit teacher strikes. A PSEA representative says strikes are a last resort necessary to ensure fair compensation.
Neshaminy School District has been at a standstill since the contract dispute between the school board and Neshaminy Federation of Teachers (NFT) boiled over on Monday with a district-wide strike.
While childcare services are available in the district for parents and many of the extracurricular activities will continue as scheduled, negotiations between the teachers and school board have been suspended through the duration of the strike. The reporting and comments from users on Lower Southampton Patch display a wide range of heated emotions in support of both sides.
“Greed,” comments john, “They care about themselves not our community. If they want to strike - fire them all and tell them if they want to work, work under a new contract. There would be a line around the block with people willing and able to work.”
“Why would the teachers accept?” writes John Evans. “Every teacher loses thousands of dollars under the board’s proposal while working longer hours, more days and with fewer benefits. There is not a single concession or benefit to any teacher, from a first year to a 30 year, everyone loses money under the board’s offer.”
Pennsylvania State Representative Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks) has been compelled by the tense situation to write a letter to House Education Committee Chairman Paul Clymer (R-Bucks) that urges him to bring House Bill 1660 up for a hearing. Santarsiero introduced the Back to Educating Our Kids Act in June 2011, hoping to reduce teacher strikes in Pennsylvania.
“The bill does two things,” said Santarsiero. “It gets rid of strikes and brings parties together earlier in the negotiations. I was affected by the Pennsbury strike in 2005, so I know how disruptive they can be.”
Once an arbitration panel has rendered a decision, the union and school district have 10 days to either accept or reject the proposal. A rejection of the proposal comes with consequences, however. If teachers reject, they lose the right to strike; if the district rejects, their state funding goes into escrow until a new settlement is reached.
“I believe in collective bargaining,” said Santarsiero, “but I don’t think striking is helpful to the process. They are disruptive and divide the community.”
HB-1660 is one of several bills that have been introduced to address teacher strikes. Representatives Todd Rock (R-Franklin) and Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) have co-sponsored HB-1369, which would amend the state constitution to outlaw strikes and lockouts. O’Neill and Murt have also co-sponsored HB-1351, which prohibits strikes in certain situations, such as fact-finding periods and arbitration.
“I strongly believe that we need to provide binding arbitration (like the police and fireman have) to ensure fair negotiations by all parties concerned if and when we eliminate the right to strike,” writes O’Neill in e-mailed comments to Patch.
Wythe Keever, assistant communications director with the Pennsylvania State Education Association, says the strikes are a last, but necessary, resort to ensure that teachers maintain a fair wage and positive work environment.
“Teachers are not overpaid,” said Keever. “On average, they make less than similarly educated Pennsylvanians. If compensations are not attractive, districts will have a harder time finding and retaining qualified teachers.”
Other misconceptions that Keever often sees are claims about short work hours and fewer workdays for teachers. Keever counters that teachers often take work home at night and during weekends, and they are required to maintain continuing education credits by attending workshops or seminars.
Keever also points out that Act 88 has prevented the loss of instructional days for students affected by teacher strikes. According to the legislation, districts must have 180 days of instruction by June 15. The passage of Act 88 in 1992 has dramatically reduced the length of teacher strikes in Pennsylvania, Keever says.
According to a report published in 2007 by Elizabeth Weaver, a research assistant for the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a Pittsburgh-based think tank, Pennsylvania is one of 13 states in the U.S. that allows teachers to strike. From 2000 to 2007, there were 137 strikes in the U.S. with Pennsylvania responsible for 82, averaging approximately 12 per year, the paper states.
Keever says that the Neshaminy strike is the first one in Pennsylvania for the 2011-2012 school year, pointing out that the contract negotiations began four years ago and that the teachers are working at 2008 rates. He says that any given year can see 200-250 districts engaged in collective bargaining negotiations, with an average of 5-10 percent resulting in strikes.
A report published by the National Education Association in 2009 shows that Pennsylvania teachers average $58,124, which is higher than the national average of $55,350. Based on the numbers provided by the report, the 13 states that allow strikes average $55,392, compared to the average of $52,725 for the 37 states (plus Washington D.C.) that prohibit strikes.
Frank Gamrat, a senior research associate with the Allegheny Institute, supports the legislative efforts to ban strikes, but says they will never get the support needed to pass, even with the current Republican majorities in the state House and Senate and a Republican governor.
“The teacher unions carry a lot of power in the statehouse,” said Gamrat. “Republicans in weaker districts tend to give in to them. Our position is that strikes unfairly places the balance of power with the teachers.”
Santarsiero says that other proposed bills only address part of the issue and a more comprehensive approach is necessary to pass fair legislation for all sides.
“They don’t create mechanisms to deal with the whole problem,” he says. “We need something that prevents years and years of unresolved contracts and bad blood developing between the teachers and school boards.”