This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has asked the state’s highest court to reject the School District’s recent petition for confirmation of its authority to unilaterally abrogate teacher seniority rights and other teacher work rules.
On Thursday, the PFT filed its response to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over the work rule changes and that the issues under dispute should be subject to collective bargaining as they have been in the past. The union’s attorneys argue that the "grievance and arbitration dispute resolution mechanism" established by state labor laws "is the only method for resolving these issues."
Citing the state takeover law known as Act 46, the School District has claimed the right not to negotiate with the teachers’ union over "non-mandatory" bargaining issues — issues apart from wages, hours, and working conditions.
But the PFT’s legal response emphasizes that the SRC is asking for "relief from the agreements it negotiated over the last 13 years with the Federation while possessing all of the authority conferred on it by Act 46." It goes on to say that in contract talks, the union and the District are still negotiating over all the disputed issues covered in the District petition and "are not at an impasse on any issue."
In a statement, PFT president Jerry Jordan said, “This action by the SRC and its new chairman, Bill Green, is just the latest attempt by the Commission — an unelected and unaccountable body — to strip teachers and other school employees of their rights, but even more important, the SRC’s actions do nothing to improve the learning conditions for our City’s children."
The School District declined to comment; a spokesperson said the District does not comment on active litigation.
Backing today’s PFT response, 22 state lawmakers and a league of 14 unions, led by the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, and representing over one million members, filed separate amicus briefs asking the court to dismiss the District’s petition.
"This Court cannot and should not become the permanent arbiter of ongoing disputes between any union … and the SRC," stated the brief from Sen. Lawrence Farnese and other lawmakers. Farnese is a member of the state’s judiciary committee.
"This petition is but the latest effort in a disturbing trend emanating from the City and School District … under the guise of financial hardship, to sidestep the collective bargaining process, avoid the grievance and arbitration procedure, and attempt to co-opt the power of this Court to improve its bargaining position," reads the statement from the labor unions.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes said he agrees with the Distict’s central premise that it’s important to get the right teachers in the right classrooms.
But he said the District should rescind its petition to the Court and return to the table in “good faith.”
“These are issues that need to be addressed at the bargaining table. … We can not escape the reality that the School District of Philadelphia is on fire. That house is on fire down there because of budget cuts, and we have to have an environment where people are making a conscious decision to work together to try to put that fire out.”
Since the majority-state-appointed School Reform Commission took over the District in 2001, the District has negotiated two new contract agreements and two contract extensions with the teachers’ union.
The PFT’s current contract expired in August. Since, little progress has been reported.
Additional reporting by Kevin McCorry of NewsWorks.