Unions balk as PA weighs teacher strike-ban

In the face of powerful union opposition, some state lawmakers are agitating to build support for legislation that would ban teacher strikes in Pennsylvania , a move they say would end the state's distinction as a leader in teacher walkouts.

Proposals that were introduced during the 2005-06 legislative session went nowhere, but proponents of the idea are hoping to spur greater public pressure this time by linking the issue to rising property taxes, a chronic complaint among the state's homeowners.

An organization called Stop Teacher Strikes Inc. has compiled a list of all 253 legislators on its Web site and noted whether they were endorsed by and received campaign contributions from the state's largest teachers' union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

"What we're trying to do is rally the public," said the organization's founder, Simon Campbell, a resident of the Pennsbury School District in suburban Philadelphia. Campbell appeared Monday at a news conference with a handful of House Republicans who are sponsoring a bill and a related constitutional amendment that would make walkouts by educators illegal.

The bill would force teachers to forfeit two days' pay for each day of a strike, fine individuals $5,000 for inciting a strike, and require nonbinding arbitration to resolve contract disputes within a certain time frame.

The amendment prohibiting strikes would be included in a section of the constitution that requires the Legislature to provide a "thorough and efficient" public education system.

Constitutional amendments must be approved by lawmakers in two consecutive legislative sessions and by voters in a referendum. The advantage of that process, despite its length and complexity, is that the amendment would not require the governor's approval, said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler.

"It should be clear to anyone with common sense that 'thorough and efficient' does not mean allowing the education process to be disrupted by teacher strikes," Metcalfe said.

Schools in three of the state's 501 school districts were closed Monday because of teacher strikes: Seneca Valley School District in Butler County, Lake-Lehman School District in Luzerne County, and Reynolds School District in Mercer County.

Of nearly 140 teacher strikes that occurred nationally between 2000 and 2007, 60 percent took place in Pennsylvania, according to a report released in August by the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. Pennsylvania is one of 13 states in which teacher strikes are legal, and the state in which walkouts are most common, the institute found.

The Pittsburgh-based think tank opposes strikes by public-sector unions in "vital sectors" such as mass transit and education, said Jake Haulk, its president.

"The only way you get (support for a ban) is a massive uprising on the part of the taxpayers who say, 'Enough is enough,'" Haulk said. "That hasn't happened yet."

PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever said the report is misleading because its comparisons include smaller states such as Hawaii, which has only one statewide school district.

Pennsylvania teachers first won the right to strike in 1970, and the law was revised in 1992 to limit the duration of strikes to ensure that students receive the minimum 180 days of instruction required by law.

Rendell, who received $500,000 from PSEA's political-action committee for his re-election bid last year, opposes an outright ban on strikes, "certainly not without providing a way for grievances to be handled fairly," spokesman Chuck Ardo said.

Rendell favors resolving labor disputes by forcing both sides to go through binding arbitration , a provision included in a strike-ban bill sponsored by Senate Democratic Leader Robert J. Mellow of Lackawanna County.

"We don't believe there's a need for a radical response," Ardo said.

PSEA is unwilling to give up the right to strike, however, and favors binding arbitration only when both sides agree to pursue it, Keever said. The union represents about 116,000 active teachers.

"It's the only leverage we have" in negotiations, Keever said. "Although no one likes to strike ... we believe the right to strike is necessary under certain circumstances."


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