Teachers last went on strike in 1975; the next one could be soon
Could there be a teachers’ strike in Pittsburgh Public Schools?
The answer, to put it bluntly, is yes.
The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers mailed strike authorization ballots to 2,955 full dues-paying union members on Jan. 29. Ballots were due back by noon on Feb. 12. Out of 2,453 ballots returned and counted, 94 percent (2,309) voted in favor of authorizing the PFT Executive Board/Negotiations Team to take a strike vote if needed. Just 6 percent (144) voted against authorizing a strike vote.
The vote totals were released to the New Pittsburgh Courier by PFT Director of Communications Lindsey Williams.
“It has been more than 40 years since the PFT has gone on strike. We want to be in the classroom with our students,” said PFT President Nina Esposito-Visgitis in the release. “This is clearly a demonstration that our members feel strongly about the items that we are still negotiating and want a contract that is good for students and fair to educators.
“The PFT has gone to the table for the last year and a half fully prepared to negotiate and we have reached agreement on a number of issues,” Esposito-Visgitis continued. “However, we are still negotiating on issues that are critical to a highly-effective teaching and learning environment.”
PFT is in negotiations with the district for three separate contracts: Professionals, Paraprofessionals and Technical-Clerical employees. All three contracts expired on June 30, 2017. Union members have been working without a contract since then.
Pittsburgh Public Schools, according to its website, had an enrollment of 23,286 (grades K-12) in the 2016-17 school year, with 53 percent of the students classified as African American. The district has 54 schools.
The members’ vote to authorize a strike doesn’t necessarily mean a strike will occur. PFT must give the district 48 hours notice before a walkout does happen. In a release provided by Pittsburgh Public Schools dated Jan. 26, PPS spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said, “The District recognizes that the possibility of a strike represents a significant disruption for our students and their families. We continue to work diligently with PFT leadership toward a resolution that reflects our deep respect for our outstanding teachers while also prioritizing our mission of providing the highest quality education possible for every student.”
Anthony Hamlet, EdD, now in his second year as Superintendent of Schools, remarked: “From my first day as superintendent, I have been clear about one matter: moving forward, the top priority of the Pittsburgh Public Schools is going to be the children we serve. They are the reason we exist. I have nothing but the highest regard for our outstanding teachers—in fact, as a former teacher, I have walked in their shoes. But I have a responsibility to the children of this district to put their needs above those of adults, even adults I deeply respect and admire. Real change results from difficult work. If it were easy, it would have happened by now. This is the commitment I made when I accepted this position, and it is one I intend to see through to fruition.”
As the two sides try to hash out an agreement, the PFT Executive Board is scheduled to meet Thursday, Feb. 15 at 4:30 p.m. to discuss a strike authorization vote. The next day, Feb. 16, an all-day negotiations session is scheduled between the two parties beginning at 9 a.m.
“Our educators are highly trained professionals and we want a voice in our schools and to be partners in the educational program,” Esposito-Visgitis said in a statement. “The best schools are always the ones with environments of mutual respect and collaboration, not ones where educators are disempowered. We look forward to our negotiations session on Friday and hope that the district understands that our educators will fight for a contract that is best for our students and our schools.”
Late yesterday, Feb. 13, Pittsburgh Public Schools released an updated statement concerning the possible strike situation. The release stated two unresolved issues as the reason for the bulk of the impasse—Principals’ autonomy, and teacher churn.
“PPS holds principals accountable for the progress they’re making with their students. To do that, they need to have the power to assign teachers in a way that moves student achievement levels within their building,” the PPS release said. “Currently, PPS is one of the only urban school districts in the nation that allows teachers to override the principal on class schedules and teaching assignments. This is an outdated practice that prioritizes the wishes of adults above the needs of the students. It is not sustainable for a district that seeks to make a palpable, measurable improvement in student outcomes. Furthermore, the fact-finder agreed with the district’s stance on this fundamental managerial prerogative, yet the union remains squarely opposed.”
As for “teacher churn,” the release read: “A loophole in the human resources process is creating far too much teacher turnover in our most challenged schools. Today, if a teacher is hired after August 1, the personnel system considers the job vacant and posts the job. In the 2016-17 school year, nearly 100 staff moved as a result. In schools where need is highest—with poverty rates as high as 90 percent—the staff turnover is nearly 30 percent. This loophole means our most vulnerable children are repeatedly exposed to a revolving door of teachers.”
The release states that teacher compensation and benefits are “not the primary sticking points.”
“We fully recognize the hardship that a strike poses to our families and to the city that we call home. That is why the district continues to work so hard to reach a resolution that will be acceptable to all parties,” Dr. Hamlet said in the Feb. 13 release. “Nonetheless, a strike vote is out of our hands—it is the decision of the PFT and its membership. Ultimately, the ongoing negotiations between the PFT and the district will arrive at a resolution. When they do, I am confident that we will move forward together—teachers, administrators, parents, and community leaders—to work toward our common goal of the best possible education for our students. There is no greater opportunity, and no greater responsibility, than preparing our children for the future that we will leave for them. It is my sincerest wish that whatever our differences may be, we embrace that responsibility together, always keeping the best interest of our students the top priority.”
Follow @NewPghCourier on Twitter https://twitter.com/NewPghCourier