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Q & A on School Strikes in PA

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Saucon Valley teachers are on strike. What are the rules of the road for school strikes in the Commonwealth? Find out.


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After more than a year without a contract, teachers in the Saucon Valley School District went on strike Oct. 14.

The two sides are scheduled to meet with a state mediator Monday morning to try to restart negotiations, but the state has ruled the walkout can last through Nov. 10.

As the strike drags on, it has raised many questions in the community about the rules that govern teacher negotiations and strikes in Pennsylvania.. We answer some of them here.

Q: Why can't the school district just fire all the teachers who are on strike, hire replacements and start over?

A: Public school teachers in Pennsylvania are protected by tenure and state collective bargaining law, according to state Department of Labor and Industry spokesman Chris Manlove.

Each union's contract contains employment terms, and the state school code spells out reasons teachers can be fired, said Russ Dennis, a Bucknell University professor who edits Issues in Pennsylvania School Law.

''[Striking] is not one of those enumerated reasons,'' said Sean Fields, attorney with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Act 195 of 1970 gives teachers the right to strike in Pennsylvania, making it a lawful activity that is not grounds for dismissal.

''Therefore, Act 195 and Pennsylvania school law prevent school districts from firing striking public school teachers unless there is just cause or a violation of school law,'' Dennis said.

Act 88 of 1992 does allow districts to hire temporary replacement teachers to open schools during a strike, but they are limited to educators who have worked in the district in the last 12 months.

Q: Saucon Valley went through nonbinding arbitration last year, and it didn't work. Could the district and the teachers agree to binding arbitration?

A: The short answer is no, according to Manlove. Binding arbitration is not provided for under Act 88, the state's teacher contract negotiating law.

Act 88 allows for mediation, fact-finding and -- after an initial strike – requires both sides to engage in final-best-offer nonbinding arbitration, which either side can reject.

Dennis said a union and school board could agree to turn their dispute over to a neutral third-party and then agree to abide by their determination, but it wouldn't be binding in the end, and could potentially be open to a legal challenge.

''I would be very leery to go with a remedy or way of resolution the Department of Labor doesn't back,'' said Fields, of the school boards association.

Public safety workers like police and firefighters are not permitted to strike, but do have the option of binding arbitration. If those unions fail to reach a contract, an arbitration panel reviews both sides' offers and imposes a contract.

Q: Have teachers always been able to strike?

A: No. According a report by the Education Commission of the States, ''collective bargaining for teachers is a relatively new phenomenon.''

The first ever collective bargaining agreement for American teachers was reached in 1962 between the American Federation for Teachers and the city of New York, according to the report.

After that, the report said, teacher strikes began to spread across the country in the 1960s and 1970s. States then passed laws governing teachers' negotiating rights.

In Pennsylvania, teachers gained the right to strike in 1970, when lawmakers passed Act 195, Dennis said. Act 88 of 1992 put some limits on teachers strike rights, requiring them to give 48 hours notice of any walkout, and limiting the length of strikes and the number to two each year.

Q: Do teachers get paid while they are on strike?

A: Typically no, said Saucon Valley Education Association spokesman Eric Stever. But they'll make up most of that lost pay after school resumes.

Teachers' employment is based on the number of days they work. Many of the days lost during the strike will be made up later in the year.

The teachers must work at least 180 days because the state requires all students to be in school that long. In Saucon Valley, teachers' pay is based on a 192-day work year, including in-service days, when students aren't present. So they'll lose a percentage of their annual pay based on the number of work days they fall short of 192 at the end of June.

Teachers must be allowed to work until June 30 to make up in-service days, Saucon Valley Superintendent Sandra Fellin said.

Q: After they return to school, can teachers call out sick, or take vacation on a holiday that has been converted to a school day because of the strike?

A: If they are actually sick, a teacher can take a sick day, Fellin said, but the district can require a doctor's note to make sure. Teachers do not get vacation days.

Q: Are there any efforts under way in the state Capitol to change state law regarding strikes?

A: In April, State Rep. Todd Rock, R-Franklin, introduced the Strike-Free Education Act, House Bill 1369. But it, and several similar proposals introduced over the last decade have gone nowhere.

Rock said he can't even get his bill through the House Labor Relations Committee. It has not even come up for a vote.

''We've been trying for years to make this change and nothing has happened Â… it's frustrating,'' Rock said.

The proposal would ban teachers strikes, imposing a $5,000 fine for inciting a strike and charging teachers two days of pay for every day on strike.

Sen. Minority Leader Robert Mellow, D-Lackawanna, also has introduced legislation that would ban teachers strikes, replacing them with last-best-offer binding arbitration in which the home county's president judge makes the final determination. It also has been mired in committee.

Q: How do teachers in states where striking is not allowed negotiate contracts?

A: Of the 35 states with laws that govern collective bargaining, 22 prohibit teachers strikes, according to the Education Commission of the States. That puts Pennsylvania on a short list of 13 states that allow them.

Among those that prohibit strikes are: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Each has its own rules for negotiating. Some, such as Connecticut, ban strikes in favor of binding arbitration.

In some states that prohibit strikes, teacher salaries are set by the state, said Fields, of the school boards association.

New Jersey changed its bargaining process in 2003. It set up a negotiating structure that ends with something called ''super conciliation'' in which a mediator is appointed who has the authority to lock both sides in a room until they reach an agreement, said Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association.

Before things get to that stage, the two sides must go through face-to-face talks, mediation and fact-finding.

Before that, state law allowed school districts to unilaterally impose their final best offer on teachers if negotiations failed, leading to strikes in which teachers were sometimes jailed.

scott.kraus@mcall.com

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Copyright © 2009, The Morning Call

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