PFT

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PFT TeachersTeachers in Pittsburgh are under attack. The city’s public school district has so far refused to meet their demands in round after round of contract negotiations. Since June 30 teachers in the Pittsburgh Public School District have been teaching 30,000 K-12 students without an up-to-date contract. The district’s paraprofessionals and technical-clerical employees have also been working without an updated contract.  Those about to move up the salary ladder at the end of the 06-07 school year have had their pay frozen by the district, remaining at the same salary level. Now, only the “status-quo clause” of Pennsylvania’s collective bargaining laws hold the conditions of the old contract in place.

At the end of October, the teachers reached their breaking point. They voted to authorize their union, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (AFT Local 400), to call for strike action if needed. This is the first time a strike has been authorized by the PFT in three decades. Eighty-three percent of PFT members voted on the question. Over 2,600 union members responded “yes!” with a resounding 91.9 percent majority. Since then, the union has been engaged in negotiations with the district.

Since August, negotiations aimed at settling on a new contract have been under way. The state has sent in mediators Ed Wintermeyer and Joe Lamenza, in an attempt to “have both parties reduce and resolve areas of dispute.” So far, every round of discussions has failed to reach a satisfactory agreement, as the teachers have taken a firm stand against concessions.

The PFT aims to rectify a number of outstanding economic and non-economic issues with a new contract. For instance, they aim to reduce the number of furloughs among professionals by 80 percent and among paraprofessionals represented by the union by 40 percent. The PFT wants to reduce the number of furloughs to 0 – the only number acceptable. The union also aims to have the district compensate its members for pay lost in the salary freeze. The teachers’ union has refused to give in on these or any other questions relating to staffing, compensation, or benefits.

The last negotiations update came on December 24 in a newsletter to union members. The talks have continued without resolution. As the update from PFT President John Tarka states, the “economic and non-economic” issues in dispute remain significant. The final scheduled round of negotiations is slated for December 28. It is presumed that following this meeting, a proposal will be brought to the union for a ratification vote.

The district is alarmed at the no-nonsense attitude taken by the teachers and their representatives in the negotiations. In response, anti-labor organizations, representing the interests of the state, have taken the offensive. One of these organizations is A+ Schools, which “grades” public schools based on a scale developed by private corporation Rand Corp. This grading scale goes so far as to compare public schools to charter schools, which are often run in a for-profit manner, with massive funding from private corporations, and are often notorious for their anti-union policies.

These organizations have used the mainstream press, primarily through the op-ed pages, to defame the union and make the interests of the teachers look downright sinister. For instance, in a November 28 opinion piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Carey A. Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, said among other things:

“The Pittsburgh school district stands at a very critical juncture. Its window of opportunity for education reform is small and closing… At stake are the futures of 30,000 children, their families and the regional economy, which will one day depend on the performance of these students.”

“…A+ Schools believes that a teachers strike will do nothing to serve the interests of our children and that a disruption to student education is unacceptable.”

“The disruption of learning is especially detrimental to our most struggling students and it causes hardship for families – especially single parents, working parents and those with fewer resources. In addition to crippling reform efforts, a strike could result in an immediate and future loss of students (and state funding) that may not return.”

In almost every paragraph there is a plea for the PFT to “come to their senses”, along with the outright accusation that a teachers’ strike will harm children. In essence, they are demanding that the union buckle “in the interests of our children.” But if the good citizens of “A+ Schools” believe that a strike will irreparably damage Pittsburgh students why don’t they demand that the district accept the teachers’ reasonable contract demands, thereby avoiding a strike and improving the conditions of teachers and students alike? Certainly the fancy grading scales provided to them by Rand Corp. take into consideration that teachers, like all other working human beings, need to be paid adequately in order to do their often stressful and difficult jobs. How well will our children’s education fare if our best teachers have to leave because they can’t make ends meet working in the Pittsburgh public schools? One hundred employees represented by the PFT have already resigned in the past year.

These attacks by A+ Schools and others show that the district bureaucrats and private interests are, in fact, afraid of the union. They are trying to blame the teachers for the conditions of our public schools, instead of the state, local and federal governments that have starved the district of funding and the private corporations who are out to make a buck off of our children. They make every attempt to cast the teachers in a negative light in order to diminish community support for the already over-burdened teachers.

With ever-growing class sizes, limited resources, and dwindling funds, the teachers’ struggle is much more than just some “selfish” attempt for the teachers to cushion themselves. It is an attempt to ensure that they have the proper access to materials and an atmosphere needed to educate the next generation of workers who will be living and working in Pittsburgh and around the country. What is needed now more than ever is support for this struggle from everyone who depends on its outcome – working parents, students, teachers, and all those who work for the school district.

PFT MarchOnly through broad community support will the conditions necessary for the success of our city’s teachers and, in turn, students be met. All workers, and especially working parents, must make it clear to the district that we are advocates of our city’s educators. We endorse their demands and we value the future of our children. The district must agree to the fair demands being made by the teachers. And if the teachers are forced to strike, we are with them!

Students also have an important role to play. Students see these teachers every day. They can bear witness to the lack of materials in the classroom, the overcrowded class sizes, and the all-around negligence of the district in solving these problems. Teachers and students have a common struggle – to fight for better conditions in the schools, in order to assure a better learning environment.

The Workers International League calls on all working families and students to actively support the Pittsburgh public school teachers. Nothing is more important than the future of our children. Let’s give them the best one possible by giving their teachers the support they deserve!


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