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PFT vs SRC: A Philadelphia Story

PFT vs SRC: A Philadelphia Story

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ONE OF THE PARTS of office culture that you can’t seem to get around no matter how badly you want to is the team building activity.

While these things vary, almost all of them include something called a “trust exercise.” Usually, it’s someone leading you around blindfolded, or someone falling backward and expecting you to catch them.

When it works, you find out that your co-workers really have your back. When it doesn’t, you’re looking at a concussion because either your head hits the floor, or you walked into a pole.

I thought about this on Monday when my 6ABC app alerted me to the news that the School Reform Commission had decided to cancel the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract.

The request for a pay cut and the rumor that such things as drinking fountains were about to be taken away from the teachers were met by PFT President Jerry Jordan explaining to SRC Chair Bill Green that the Emancipation Proclamation was still the law of the land… contentious negotiations are about to get exponentially worse.

These two groups of people had been negotiating a new deal, or at least leading us to believe they were, since the teachers’ contract expired in August 2013. It hadn’t been going well because in addition to the teachers being asked to pay a premium for their health insurance, they were being asked to concede such things as class size requirements.

The request for a pay cut and the rumor that such things as drinking fountains were about to be taken away from the teachers were met by PFT President Jerry Jordan explaining to SRC Chair Bill Green that the Emancipation Proclamation was still the law of the land.

But the combination of the SRC’s decision, the SRC meeting that preceeded it, and a promise from Jordan that the PFT’s lawyers were about to take the SRC to the woodshed has pretty much insured that a set of already contentious negotiations are about to get exponentially worse.

Why? Because the trust between these two groups is gone, folks. Long gone.

And there’s no Teambuilding activity in the world that’s going to get it back.

The history of the SRC

From the moment that Gov. Mark Schweiker and Mayor John Street put their heads together and decided on the compromise that created the SRC, you kind of knew that the relationship between that group and the PFT was going to be fraught with peril.

The law that created it, Act 46 (or as I like to call it, the Law That Ensured That State Rep. Dwight Evans Will Never Occupy The Big Office In City Hall) gave this newly created, unelected body that’s heavily weighted in the direction of folks who hate unions, entirely too much power over the teachers.

Among the things that Act 46 did was allow the SRC to consider the district “distressed” and impose contract terms that included stuff like longer school days, and no restrictions on class size.

It also included, according to the SRC, the Nuclear Option that the SRC has just imposed. For years, this particular Sword of Damocles has hung over the PFT’s head and folks had threatened to bring it down in the past.

But anyone who had really paid any attention to SRC Chair Bill Green when he was City Councilman Bill Green sort of knew that if anyone was going to take that sword out of its sheath, he would.

I generally don’t get the dilettante vibe from many folks here in Philadelphia. But Green wears his dilettante like a helmet. So his doing this didn’t surprise me much. Nor did the justification he had for it.

“Philadelphia families have made extraordinary sacrifices: students come to school every day in buildings that lack critical resources necessary for teaching and learning,” Green said. “Bringing PFT health benefits in line with those received by other District, city and state employees will drive tens of millions to our classrooms.”

Jordan wasn’t buying it, of course.

“They were doing something dirty and tried to call it clean,” he said. “It’s one thing to negotiate a contract, it’s another thing to have something imposed on us. This shows a disrespect for the teachers.”

When you add the fact that the district has also shut down the PFT’s health and welfare fund, a fund that ensures that the health benefits and pensions of retired teachers are paid, you get a recipe for people giving each other the side-eye at the bargaining table.

Now here’s one thing you should know about all this. The SRC has gone to Commonwealth Court to get the legal okay for the contract cancellation. This is significant because the body had already gone to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to ask for permission, and was met with a Whitney Houston-esque, “Hell to the no!”

The SRC, the PFT, and Philly teachers

Now Philadelphia has a tough enough time keeping the new teachers that come out of places like Temple and the University of Pennsylvania in the district. The best and brightest that come out of places like that with stars in their eyes and thousands in student loan debt aren’t trying to teach in a place where most of your check goes to Staples to pay for the supplies you need to teach the 65 kids that are packed into your classroom.

Kids who probably didn’t have a good breakfast, if one at all, are dealing with all sorts of adult things, and probably didn’t have a decent coat to wear.

Heck, I did it for two years. And no one has to worry about my doing it again. Especially now.

Teaching used to be one of those things that people did because they thought it was a calling and that they could trust people to look out for them.

But in this case, the teachers leaned back, and hit their heads on the floor…hard.

So much for that trust exercise…

denise clay 2Denise Clay is a veteran journalist who is active in the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists