A Strike to Kickoff the Next School Year

"’Strike’ shall mean a concerted action in failing to report for duty, the willful absence from one’s position, the stoppage of work, slowdown or the abstinence in whole or in part from the full, faithful, and proper performance of the duties of employment for the purposes of inducing, influencing or coercing a change in the conditions or compensation or the rights, privileges, or obligations of employment…" Section 1101-A, Act 88 of 1992

The 2012-13 school year might have been the first year since the 1970s that Pennsylvania did not have a school strike-the determination on whether a dispute in the Old Forge District in northeastern PA is still unresolved as to whether it was a strike or a lockout. Right now, as it is summer break, there is no classroom instruction happening in the districts around the state. That includes the Shaler Area School District, which, come September, may be on an extended summer vacation as the teachers’ union has already given notice that no contract means no work. The school board accepted and the union rejected the fact-finder’s report that came as part of the negotiation process that began in January 2011. Shaler had a three day strike in the 1997-98 school year.

Defenders of the teachers are probably bowled over by how magnanimous the union is being–after all, Act 88 requires only a 48 hour notice of a strike and here the school board and the parents have been given more than two months notice. They would implore the members of the school board to get back to the drawing board and get things right so as to avoid a stoppage. After all, they have had two and a half years and the teachers did not follow though with a strike authorization they made in November of 2012.

But the early strike notice gives teachers an opportunity to spend some or all of their summer expressing their distaste with the contract situation. Even though it would not be a strike in the most proper terms, teachers could mill around the outside the schools from now until the beginning of September from early morning until late afternoon to keep parents and school board members aware of what things would look like should a strike occur. Since teachers do not deem it a great imposition to disrupt parents’ and students’ plans for summer vacation-or even Christmas Holidays- then perhaps the families of teachers won’t mind if the teachers launch a pre-emptive summer protest demonstration that lasts several weeks.

What Triggers a Voiding of PAT Agreement?

There are a lot of "ifs" in the agreement that was crafted between the Port Authority management, the Amalgamated Transit Union, and the Commonwealth that held off service cuts and reductions that were scheduled to happen at the beginning of September. If the RAD board agrees to fund PAT, if the County comes up with money from the drink and car rental taxes, if the state finds the money etc., etc.

The PAT website has a summary of the executed agreement between PAT and the ATU and it states that there are essentially three events that could trigger one of the parties to void the agreement and reverting back to the prior contract. "In the event funding is insufficient" and either:

  • 1. A bus garage is forced to close (there are five operating divisions in the County) or
  • 2. More than 5% of the current bargaining unit workforce is laid off (as of June 30, 2012 there were 2,106 ATU employees according to the PAT budget) or
  • 3. More than 5% of the 2,300 bargaining unit is laid off over the life of the four year contract

Note that the most recent "doomsday" projection for September 2012 would have shuttered the Collier garage and resulted in layoffs that would have hit the PAT workforce (not all were represented by the ATU) to the tune of 23%. Based on the conditions above the range of headcount reductions would be 105 to 115 employees. Seeing that the PAT board and management has historically been inclined to avoid any interruption of service it is unlikely that they would be the party that would void the contract if one of the above did indeed occur.

Transit Pact on the Table

According to published reports and a news release from the County Executive’s office, there is a tentative deal between the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Port Authority that represents "the first step" to avoiding the service cuts and layoffs scheduled to go into effect September 2nd.

There will be scant details until the contract is voted on, sometime around August 19th. Therefore, any comment as to what is in the contract or what the contract does vis a vis the state putting up money for closing the 2012-13 deficit is speculation.

What can be commented on is how this contract process compares to the 2005 and 2008 contract expirations and negotiations. The last contract was not voted on until December of 2008, some six months after it expired. In 2005 it took until November of that year. If the present contract is approved it will have been a considerably shorter time frame. The 2008 contract also went to fact finding, and that process was not even completed until the end of August 2008.

Going back to January 1, 2006, ATU wages have gone up 3% per year with the exception of 2010, when the increase was 2%. Employees are paying 3% of their wages toward health care coverage. The 2008 contract also truncated employees into various classes based on age and length of service to determine post-retirement health benefits.

Education Chief Fails on Performance Pay

The U.S. Secretary of Education wants districts across the country to cast their gaze upon the Pittsburgh Public Schools to see what successful collaboration between administration and a teachers’ union looks like. According to a printed report the Secretary will be coming to Pittsburgh next week "…to meet on Wednesday with Pittsburgh school officials and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers representatives to talk about how the two groups collaborated" on the current contract which included some aspects of performance pay.

As our 2010 report pointed out pay for performance moves compensation away from aspects like educational achievement and length of service and more toward student achievement. But how much of that exists in the Pittsburgh schools currently? Much of the incentives are voluntary and school based. That means current teachers aren’t so much on a pay for performance model; if they want to volunteer to take on additional duties they can earn more. And a school that does meet performance targets has to distribute any incentive/bonus money equally.

The longest and most widespread performance program in the Pittsburgh schools is for principals, who, it must be noted, are not unionized and do not collectively bargain. Even newly hired teachers don’t really link with the pay for performance concept until after their fourth year in the District.

Finally, the Secretary should know that throughout the process-the collaborative process in his view-that the District knew the teachers’ union would hold the cards on how pervasive an incentive program would be. In its request for funding to the Gates Foundation, the District noted "although PPS and PFT leadership support the initiatives contained in this proposal, the PFT membership will be the final voice on collective bargaining issues". That meant any pay for performance model would have to be palatable for the teachers’ union and that the District would not go to the mat to defend a significant move away from the salary step model.

A Big Year for PAT

Tomorrow is the first day of the 2011-12 fiscal year for the Commonwealth, virtually all of the state’s school districts, and for special purpose agencies like the Port Authority. The operating budget for PAT is $322 million, with a gap between revenue and expenses covered by the final piece of the flex money Governor Rendell found and was approved by SPC as well as budgetary reserves. The employee headcount for PAT is 2,495, which is unchanged from the end of the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Obviously PAT is waiting with anticipation for the results of the Governor’s transportation task force, which is to deliver its recommendations on how to fund all of the state’s transportation needs in a month. Already increases in registration and licensing fees have been floated as a real possibility, but it is unclear if the revenues from those sources will be tied to a particular use. PAT’s budget presentation opines that "unless statewide transportation funding crisis resolved satisfactorily over the next 14 months, massive unfunded deficits will be projected in FY13".

Unfortunately as we have pointed out on many occasions there are numerous cost-side drivers behind PAT’s funding problems. First and foremost is the cost of labor, which is front and center in the next year as the authority is entering the final year of its four-year contract with the Amalgamated Transit Union. This year workers get a 3% raise (non union workers’ wages are frozen), and there is projected to be a jump in pension contributions from PAT ($20 million to $33 million) and healthcare expense for active and retirees are still around $70 million. It is also important to look at the ratio of retirees to actives at the agency: in 2002 there was 0.71 retirees to every 1 active; now there are 1.13 retirees to every 1 active. If PAT and, by extension, County officials, feel the 2008 contract did "good" things then the 2012 contract is going to have to be even "better".

And last, but certainly not least, let us not forget that spring of 2012 will mark the commencement of service via the North Shore Connector. If the timeline holds as well as cost projections did, look for the first trips to occur well after the anticipated launch of service.

Uncertainty and Confusion Abound at PAT

What seemed to be a clear and straightforward agenda at the Port Authority (PAT) board’s March 25th meeting turned into a much longer and drawn-out affair after the transit union made a last-ditch concession proposal in order to avert the 15 percent service cut necessitated by a revenue shortfall. 


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Another 11th Hour Plan

Roughly three months after citizens were treated to Pittsburgh City Council embarking on a series of pension solutions that stretched until New Years’ Eve (hours before a state-imposed deadline) we now have the events that transpired at today’s Port Authority board meeting.

In sum, service cuts amounting to 15% of service were to go into effect Sunday the 27th; the board was set to discuss an offer by a private operator to take over two routes that the Authority was vacating as part of those service cuts.

Then came a late-minute plan by the transit union: they would forego next year’s 3% wage increase, take a 10% pay cut now, and in exchange avert the service cuts (and by extension, the opportunity for PAT to contract with the outside vendor). The union’s proposal amounts to $18 million, some $12 million short of what the County Executive insisted was necessary to bridge the gap. As of this writing the PAT board is considering the offer and is supposed to determine this evening if the offer is palatable. If it is, the union will vote on the concessions tomorrow.

This messy episode (it is not the first last minute plan hatched to avert cuts or financial problems at PAT) could have been handled differently. The board could have not entertained any concessions of less than $30 million; they could have told the union to feel free to make concessions but they were going to go forward with their cuts and, if concessions proved solid, would consider restoring service and employees. Instead, they, like City Council and City staff in December, are under a ticking clock trying to rush and determine if the plan is viable.

Still No Word on Civilians in the Police Department

As details of the proposed Fraternal Order of Police contract with the City of Pittsburgh begin to leak out, there is still no indication that the Act 47 team’s recommendation (codified as PB01) in the amended recovery plan that the City pursue a strategy of civilianization. In plain terms, civilianization is "placing civilian employees in positions held by sworn employees so the latter can be reassigned to patrol and more traditional police activities".

The recovery plan found a ratio of 13.7 sworn employees for every one civilian employee in the Pittsburgh police department. That was higher than Akron (10.5), Cleveland (4.5), Rochester (4.2), and Newark (3.1). The team characterized Pittsburgh’s ratio as "unusually high" and the International Association of Chiefs of Police backed the idea in a 2005 report.

There has been a snail’s pace at acting on the recommendation: in the 2004 Act 47 plan the team targeted 38 positions for civilianization, and only two officers have been redeployed thus far.

Obviously one has to wonder why, if civilians could perform certain functions at a lower price tag (on salary and fringe benefits) that the idea has not received more attention.

Teachers Thumb Their Noses at Taxpayers

Contract negotiations between the Penn Hills School Board and district teachers have come to a halt. In light of the recession, the School Board is asking the teachers to take a pay freeze and increase contributions toward health care-proposals being flatly rejected by the union. This is yet another instance of a public sector union thumbing their noses at taxpayers who simply cannot afford the generous pay and benefits teachers are accustomed to receiving.

Penn Hills’ teachers have expressed doubts regarding financial problems the District is facing. As is often the case with public sector unions, they see the taxpayers as a never ending source of money and would support tax increases to cover their demands. Of course teachers see themselves as providing a vital service to the community and worth ever penny. While the Penn Hills teachers have not yet suggested a strike, it is likely they would stage a walkout to pressure the School Board to abandon its call for a pay freezes.

The District is asking the teachers’ union to agree to these demands for a two-year contract, after which, assuming the economy has rebounded, pay raises could resume. The teachers have counter proposed an extension of the current contract, with pay raises intact, or a new five-year deal with a six percent increase in salary

How is it that teachers have come to believe they are exempt from the economic realities faced by everyone else? At a time when employment levels in the region have fallen to ten year ago levels and incomes are down, teachers ought to be willing to offer some relief to District taxpayers, especially since District administrators have already agreed to the Board’s request to forego pay increases in the current school year.

And that pretty well sums up the problem with public sector unions in general. They believe their power, derived from misguided state law, bestows upon them privileges and standing far beyond those enjoyed by average hard working taxpayers.