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Philadelphia Teachers' Union Vows to Fight Contract Cancellation

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is vowing to fight a surprise move by the city school district to unilaterally cancel its contract and make changes to its members' health benefits that would require union members to pay part of their health insurance costs for the first time.

The move is dividing this solidly blue city. Mayor Michael Nutter, who was part of the non-stop campaign this spring calling for additional school funds, said he supported the school district's position; while State Sen. Vincent Hughes, who represents Philadelphia, called the move "a war on the union," according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Members of the School Reform Commission, the five-member body created by the state in 2001 to run Philadelphia's schools, believe that the law that created the commission also gave the body the broad and sweeping power to take the actions that it did in a special meeting on Monday.

Jerry Jordan, president of the 15,000-member union, which represents teachers, nurses, secretaries and counselors, called the move "outrageous," "cowardly," and a "union-busting" tactic.  #PHled supporters took to Twitter after the announcement to express their outrage and many rallied in front of Gov. Tom Corbett's city office to voice their displeasure.

Jordan told The Inquirer that no action was off the table. "We are not indentured servants," Jordan is quoted as saying.

As we reported on the District Dossier blog Monday, the school district said that the union members' salaries would not be affected by the changes. Instead, the district will require teachers and other union members to contribute between $21 and $200 a month toward their benefits in the basic health plan. Currently, those enrolled in the basic plan do not pay. The SRC decision will go into effect on Dec. 15.

The district defended the surprise move on Monday, saying that it would save nearly $54 million this year in both federal funds and operating costs and another $245 million in subsequent years. The money will be reinvested in classrooms, William Green, the SRC chairman said.

The teachers' union contract expired in August 2013, and the two sides have been negotiating since then, but without a satisfactory conclusion. Other employee unions have agreed to concessions similar to what the district imposed on the teachers on Monday. The union has said that it offered concessions worth millions, that its teachers have been working without raises, and that members routinely dip into their own pockets—to the tune of hundreds of dollars each year—to buy classroom supplies. 

The Philadelphia School Notebook quotes Jordan as disputing the district's representation of the negotiations, calling them "lies."  Jordan disagreed that the concessions offered only amounted to $2 million and that the union's welfare fund is around $45 million.

Gov. Corbett, a Republican, supported the district's move in a statement Monday, which The Notebook reprinted in part:

"For nearly two years many have been working to provide a long-term funding solution for Philadelphia schools. The commonwealth and the city have approved new sources of funding; the district has dramatically cut its operating costs; and other school-related unions have agreed to contract concessions." 

"Philadelphia is one of only two districts across the commonwealth that pays zero toward healthcare. It is now time that members of the PFT join the thousands of public school employees across the state who already contribute to their health care costs."

Even with the passage of a cigarette tax and the extension of the city's one-percent sales tax—both meant to generate continuous revenues for the district—school officials have said that the district still faces an $8 million deficit this year and a possible $70 million next year. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer has a really good run down of the controversy surrounding the contract cancellation and other future implications. 

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