Analyzing Teacher Strikes in Pennsylvania


Believe it or not, for the first time since the 1970s-as far back as reliable data is available-Pennsylvania might have just had its first school year without a teacher strike. 


There was an impasse in the Old Forge School District in Lackawanna County in the school year that concluded in June, but it is going to take the determination of some outside party to rule whether the work stoppage was a strike or a lockout.


We have written for many years as to how Pennsylvania is one of a small handful of states that permit teacher strikes. It allows collective bargaining for school employees along with 34 other states, but 22 of those forbid strikes as a way to settle bargaining disputes.  And among the states in the “strikes allowed” category Pennsylvania in most years led the nation in strikes, even though there are states with more school districts and, presumably, more opportunities for strikes.


Our most recent full-length report looks at strike data from 1997-98 through 2012-13 in Pennsylvania.  After eliminating strikes that occurred at technical/career centers and intermediate units, as well as those carried out by support staff, we found that there were 115 teacher strikes over the period. The high point was 2006-07 with 14 strikes while 2002-03 and 2005-06 each had more than a dozen strikes.  All strikes over the time period occurred in 80 of the state’s 500 districts in 33 of the state’s 67 counties.  


The data show district enrollment where the strikes took place.  By taking that enrollment and multiplying it by the length of the strike, we were able to tally a measurement of “student days out of class”.  For example, a ten day strike in a district with 1,000 pupils would result in 10,000 student days out of class.  In districts with more than one strike over the time frame (either in the same year or separate years) we totaled the number of strike days and averaged enrollment counts to arrive at the student days out of class.


In cumulative terms, between 1997-98 and 2012-13 the total number of strike days was 1,177 and affected 311,674 pupils, resulting in 3,835,856 student days out of class due to strikes.


Moving from the big picture level to a more detailed analysis, we found that seven districts had strikes resulting in more than 100,000 student days out of class.  The district of Pennsbury (Bucks) had a 22 day strike in a district with more than 11,000 pupils totaling 253,924 student days out of class.  Strikes in Bethel Park (Allegheny), Seneca Valley (Butler), and Central Dauphin (Dauphin) had between 170,000 and 199,999 student days out of class. 


Twenty three districts had multiple strikes with the districts of Abington Heights and Old Forge (both in Lackawanna) having four strikes apiece.  Eight others had three teacher strikes each and the remainder had two strikes each.  The student days out of class ranged from 199,720 in Bethel Park (it had two strikes in the 16 year period lasting a total of 40 days and affecting close to 5,000 students) to 17,319 in Weatherly Area (Carbon).  This latter district had three strikes: in total, the number of strike days was 23 and the average enrollment was 753. 


We did further examination of the data based on regions of the state, dividing counties into six separate areas to focus on the data.  Only one region-north central Pennsylvania-was spared a teacher strike over the time period.


We could not account for all the impacts from teacher strikes, from parents having to arrange for childcare and effects on education from loss of continuity to changes to plans families must make when a strike necessitates extending the school year well beyond the scheduled end date.


Taxpayers, students and parents might be unaware that this strike free year (if the Old Forge dispute is ruled a lockout) occurred even though the Legislature has not enacted a statute outlawing teacher strikes. There have been many attempts to take away the right to strike; none have come close to being successful. And that means the 2012-13 year was almost certainly an anomaly and probably won’t be repeated. But it would be nice to think a new, strike free era has started.   



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.

Was it a Strike or Not?

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association collects and publishes data on labor impasses that tend to occur from time to time in one (or more) of the state’s 500 school districts. Last year we noted that the 2012-13 school year was nearly the first year without a strike in nearly forty years, only to be spoiled by the Neshaminy School District, where teachers walked off the job twice.

Thus far in the 2012-13 school year there has not been a strike…unless you ask the school board of the Old Forge School District in Lackawanna County. Because they definitely feel teachers went on strike in December. However, the union representatives insist that the teachers were locked out. A strike means no unemployment compensation, a lockout means employees can collect.

Teachers went back to the classroom on January 2nd, but the issue is not resolved. When the board met to act on the 2013-14 budget (which contains a property tax increase) and union grievances the language referred to a lockout, which prompted one board member to ask that by accepting that language the board would be creating a problem for itself. The solicitor for the District stated "They can word it however they want, we are just denying it". PSBA officials don’t yet know how to categorize the issue as that decision comes from the PA Labor Relations Board.

Inevitable Chain of Events Leading to RAD Funds for PAT

Back in the early 1990s the state Legislature granted Allegheny County authority to establish a Regional Asset District (RAD) and to impose a one percent County add-on sales tax to fund the district. The County Commissioners quickly voted to do so. There was no referendum asking the voters to approve the tax. This outrage was not repeated when it came to the plans to impose a sales tax for stadiums in 1997. That tax was roundly defeated by the voters and in all likelihood so would the RAD tax have been if it had been put to the voters.

But it is the law and the RAD tax has been collected for 18 years funding all sorts of things including new stadiums and propping up the Civic Arena. It was used to fund the Pittsburgh Development Fund that helped underwrite such memorable debacles as the Lazarus Department store. The Pittsburgh Schools also received a dollop of the tax revenue but that is now being sent to the City.

Now we have the spectacle of the RAD board approving $3 million for the Port Authority (PAT) to help fund the County’s matching contribution in order to receive additional state funds to fill a $64 million dollar deficit at PAT. Note that reserves had to be tapped to get the $3 million. Of course that means some other applicants or potential applicants could have gotten more money if the dollars were not going to PAT.

And why does PAT need the RAD money in the first place? In brief, because the state Legislature and the Governors over the years have done a remarkably inept job at controlling PAT by giving it a monopoly in the County and then giving the union employees the right to strike-something only three states permit. The right to strike a mass transit system is the most powerful bargaining chip any union can hold. Just the threat of a strike sends management into flights of terror and riders into paroxysms of anxiety about they will get to work. Businesses then join the chorus of pleading to give the union what it wants. Anything but a strike. So using the kryptonite equivalent of a bargaining advantage the unions have been able to extract one of the best, if not the best, compensation package and union favoring work rules in the nation.

Thus it was that PAT became an extraordinarily expensive transit operation, inefficient and destined to go bankrupt. If only state law would permit bankruptcy of PAT-which unfortunately it does not. So for a decade or more PAT kept sliding deeper into the ravine of financial chaos only to be temporarily bailed out again and again by the Governor riding to the rescue with highway money to fill the budget holes. Only this time, the hole was too big for the state to fill by itself. After all, the state is not flush with cash lying around to be redirected to PAT. Moreover, there are many in the Legislature from other parts of the state who are repulsed by the idea of tossing more of their constituents’ tax dollars at the outrageously expensive and inefficient PAT.

In this latest iteration of asking for state money, the Governor was far less generous than previous Governors and forced the County, the unions and the management to come up with a big chunk of the $64 million projected deficit. Of course the union share was a pittance relative to their share of the cost structure. The County, to raise its share, went immediately to the pot of money at RAD, asking for $3 million a year for ten years. The argument being that transit is too important to allow the major cuts that could be required if the state money is not forthcoming.

Dutifully, the RAD board agreed to hand over $3 million, no doubt under enormous pressure from the County Exec, PAT board members and the business community.

There it is. In short, the Legislature allows the County to create a revenue stream with one hand and then gives a "take all you want card" to the transit workers union with the other hand. Guess what was inevitable as the robins in spring? Eventually, the RAD money bags would be tapped for PAT. And so it goes.

At the very least the Legislature should have prohibited RAD money from being used to fund entities other than educational, recreational or cultural. There are some who will say this grab of RAD dollars for PAT could not have been foreseen. But they would be wrong.

More Hypocrisy: University System Faculty Authorize Strike

Unhappy faculty at the 14 institutions of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education have taken a strike vote, authorizing a walkout. A walkout will depend on how negotiations go but the vote was overwhelming and faculty members say they are serious.

A professor asked about the potential strike said higher education was under attack and they would make a statement to the nation that the attack is not acceptable. What should happen of course is that anyone with tenure who leaves his/her classes should lose their tenure-at the very least.

Maybe the professor should look around at what is happening to the education system. Graduates are leaving college with massive amounts of debt and a huge percentage cannot find employment in their chosen field. What is the point of turning out millions of graduates whose education cannot be used to launch a career capable of paying off student loans and making up for the foregone earnings during the five or six years they took getting a degree?

And why do universities continue their push to offer degrees in more and more esoteric fields for which the only employment opportunities are with government or non-profit special interest advocacy groups that depend heavily on government dollars? But most importantly, why should faculty be rewarded for their heavy handed politically correct, statist views they try to impart to students? Survey after survey finds graduates in large numbers lack basic knowledge of the nation’s history and how a free economy works. Little wonder so many college graduates lean left politically and support government do-good programs and stringent regulations on the private sector.

College degrees have become increasingly less reliable as a predictor of future success as the quality of education and significance of a diploma have undergone a long and continuous process of being replaced by lack of rigor and focus as colleges have fallen under the seductive pull of the siren song of political correctness and progressivism. While at the same time there has been scant attention paid to the consequences of the deepening lack of basic discipline and abandonment of common sense.

Here’s a suggestion for the faculty so eager for more pay. Go find a job in the real world where you won’t be coddled but will instead get compensated based on the market value of your productivity. Pleading for ever more taxpayer dollars to subsidize higher education in its current form and condition should be an embarrassment rather than the manifestation of a false sense of righteous indignation it actually represents.

There is no ignoring the real world to compare to that exhibited by insulated faculty at state owned colleges. Whose taxes do they want to see raised to get the compensation package they seek? Let them answer that question.

Unionized faculties are anathema to quality education and any logical notion of how a university should be operated. One would have thought that tenure and other privileged status would be enough power vis-à-vis university management. Not so in Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh Group Warns of Harm From PAT Service Cuts

Weighing in on the impending slash in bus service in September, an organization called the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group has issued a report claiming that the 35 percent reduction in service will create additional costs for Allegheny County residents of between $328 and $405 million per year. Higher commuter costs, more congestion, and increased parking rates are the principal drivers of the group’s estimate. The group could have added the loss of business revenue that will occur. Hard to estimate but it is almost certainly a significant number.

But the group-an advocate of more state money for transit-is missing two important considerations. First, the crisis at PAT did not arise because of inadequate state funding. The crisis is a product of decades of kowtowing to union demands for pay, benefits and work rules under the threat of transit worker strikes and the damage that inflicts on the community. The Reinvestment Group might want to go back and estimate how much the excessive costs created by the over generous contracts have cost state and local taxpayers and transit users over the last decade. The Allegheny Institute has reported frequently on PAT’s expenditure levels over the years. A reasonably solid estimate could be calculated fairly quickly.

Second, if the impending cuts do occur and appear to be permanent, there will be openings for new transit providers to begin offering service. The recently passed law stripping the Port Authority of its monopoly status will permit regional transit agencies and private carriers to initiate service to pick up some of the slack. PAT should be in discussions with regional transit agencies about how they can coordinate the introduction of service in area and on routes where major cuts are coming. This would include leasing buses to the agencies for a dollar a year to help keep their costs down. PAT could enter into contracts with private companies to cover routes about to be shut down.

PAT should begin these conversations immediately and announce they are doing so as a way to force concessions out of the unions. A transit strike is still a high probability event since the driver and mechanic contract has expired. By encouraging other carriers to offer service and coordinating with the new carriers PAT can make clear that business as usual is not happening. Finally, the state ought to eliminate the right to strike as soon as it returns from summer break. And it could add a provision to replace the Port Authority with a state appointed management team to prepare a bankruptcy filing-the only sure way to do something about the legacy costs that are crippling the Authority.

Governor Holds Firm on Port Authority Assistance

Once again Governor Corbett has nixed the pleas for his help in getting more money for the Port Authority. In response to a question on funding, the Governor said he is "not prepared to do anything" until he "sees movement" in contract negotiations. In holding firm he continues to keep the pressure on the unions and retirees of the Authority to make significant concessions, the only way the Port Authority can ever hope to deal with its massive legacy cost and compensation problems.

The game of chicken the unions have always played leading up to the end of contract deadline is underway again. In the past few negotiations, the threat of a strike has been explicit or implied as a way of getting the management to give up its demands or to get a Governor to find extra money taken from highway funds as a temporary fixes to the Authority’s finances. Having always won these contests of will in the past, the unions and retirees are inclined to believe the current Governor will give in at the last minute rather than watch the implementation of the massive service cuts Port Authority management say are coming in September.

If history holds, the real test of the Governor’s position will occur at the end of the contract if the unions go on strike or in August just before the service cuts get implemented. But this is a contest the Governor must win if sanity is to return to Port Authority financial management.

The Allegheny Institute continues to recommend a one- time boost in state assistance of $30 million in exchange for a substantial permanent reduction on retiree health care benefit concessions, current compensation concessions and a no strike pledge for ten years.

Solving PAT’s Financial Woes: State Problem or Local Issue?

The ongoing saga of the financial morass at the Port Authority (PAT) has developed an interesting twist.  Governor Corbett, through a spokesperson, has responded to PAT’s entreaties for a hefty boost in money from the Commonwealth to cover an impending $64 million deficit by telling PAT that, “they should look to their own resources to come up with a solution.” 


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