What are the labor rights of Philadelphia teachers?

What are the labor rights of Philadelphia Teachers?

Are teacher strikes legal? What does it mean to be a “distressed” district? Who can dissolve the SRC? To understand our current status as a workforce, here’s a quick summary of the three acts that have defined Philadelphia teachers and their right to the collective bargaining process. (Journal of Labor and Employment Law)

We strongly encourage you to download a two-page PDF of this information and distribute it to your fellow PFT members!

ACT 195, passed in 1970, established that:

  • All public employees in the Commonwealth have the right to organize and the ability to bargain collectively.
  • Public employees have the right to strike after the collective bargaining process has been exhausted (impasse) unless it creates “a clear and present danger or threat to the health, safety or welfare of the public.”
  • If the employer feels that the strike oversteps these bounds, the employer may seek equitable relief, including an injunction from the courts, sending employees back to work.

ACT 88, passed in 1992, scaled back these rights:

  • Interpreted “A clear and present danger or threat to the health, safety or welfare of the public” in ACT 195 as limiting teacher strikes to ensure that students receive a mandated 180 instructional days.
  • Prohibits Selective Strikes. Numerous Pennsylvania teachers used the Selective Strike in the 1980s and 90s when they would strike for a few different days each week. This tactic not only prevented the administrators from hiring scabs to replace the teachers, but also forced administrators who hadn't been in a classroom for years to staff the schools while the teachers were out.
  • Requires forty-eight hours notice before the initiation of any strike action.
  • Limits the number of strikes that teachers can engage in to two during the school year.

ACT 46, passed in 1998 and triggered into effect in 2001:

  • Permits the PA Secretary of Education to declare a “district of the first class” as being distressed. (Philadelphia is the only such district in the state.)
    • “Distressed” districts are to be placed in control of a “School Reform Commission” (SRC) consisting of 5 members.
      • SRC members may only be removed by the Governor.
      • The SRC may be dissolved only by a declaration by the Secretary of Education and only upon a recommendation of a majority of its 5 members.
    • “Distressed” districts are not required to negotiate with their teachers over work conditions such as "staffing patterns and assignments, class schedules, academic calendar, places of instruction, pupil assessment and teacher preparation time."
    • School employees of “distressed” districts are prohibited from participating in strikes as long as they are still controlled by the SRC.
      • The Secretary of Education may suspend the certificate of any employee who violates this subsection.
    • ACT 46 was later amended to include that the SRC may make decisions to suspend professional employees without regard to seniority/tenure protection.
  • ACT 46 was triggered by Governor Schweiker and Mayor Street as the takeover of the District went into effect on December 21, 2001.

Is Act 46 Legal?

In 2000, The PFT filed a complaint to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania regarding the strike prohibition and possible suspension of teaching certificates. The court dismissed the complaint, on the grounds of “lack of an actual case or controversy” -- it would take an actual strike, not a theoretical one, to prompt a ruling.

As a result, the legality of Act 46 and its prohibition of teacher strikes remains untested. It is also not clear if the state would definitely suspend certificates -- the “may” gives permission, but not a guarantee.

It’s worth mentioning that, while Act 46 states that the District has right to impose some working conditions, District is ALSO seeking confirmation from the State Supreme court in advance of imposing changes to seniority and prep time. They do not trust the law on its own, and want confirmation before they rely on it.

What about the current legal battle?

The PFT has filed a response to the District’s petition to the Supreme Court. It is supported by 22 state elected officials and the AFL-CIO. The response argues that that Act 46 does not give the District the right to impose terms in this case, as negotiations did not break down, and that the District must honor a contract it has already agreed to.

It also cites a 2010 ruling in favor of teachers in the Coatesville Area School District, where that district was barred from “unilaterally stripping from the contract” that they had chosen to enter with their teachers.

We await a response from the courts!

This summary was produced by the Caucus of Working Educators, a part of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. For additional information and more resources like these, including the SDP petition and full PFT response, connect with the Caucus of Working Educators at workingeducators.org.