What Happens if There's no New Philly Teachers Contract?

So what happens if Philadelphia's public schools are supposed to open Monday, and the bitter contract dispute betwen the school district and its teachers union is unresolved?

State law gives the district a "nuclear option," and there are serious pressures on its leaders to push the button.

There have been some ugly moments in Philadelphia schools over the years. There was a 50-day teachers strike in 1981. In the late 1990s the superintendent threatened to close the schools without more state money. And now in 2013, we're at a crisis point again. The district is broke, and more funding seems to depend on contract concessions from teachers who think they've given too much already.

I have no predictions to make, but I decided it would be worth looking into what rules and laws could affect the parties' behavior. Here goes.

First, there won't be a strike — that's expressly prohibited by the 1998 law that re-organized the district's governance after the last funding crisis. But it doesn't mean there can't be a work stoppage — more on that in a moment. But first, the law that re-drew the district, known as Act 46, includes a powerful weapon for the school district in its labor relations, a weapon so powerful it's never been used.

"Under Act 46, the Philadelphia school district could impose a contract," said State Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia), who helped craft that law 15 years ago.

It appears to allow the district, if it feels its getting nowhere with its union, to give its teachers a take-it-or-leave-it offer, changing salaries, benefits, hours, work rules, the works.

Labor lawyers say it's not so simple, that there are Pennsylvania court rulings which say public employers can't impose a contract as long as employees are willing to work under the previous agreement. See, for example, this case involving the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

I managed to get union attorney Deborah Willig on the phone and ask her if the teachers union would quickly take the matter to court.  "Ah, I think that the union would examine all the strategies and actions available to it," Willig said.

She wasn't about to lay out her cards to me, but there's a legal theory that if the district did cut salaries and benefits, employees would be empowered under labor law to withhold their services, and call it an employer lock-out. Act 46, by the way, allows the state education secretary to yank the teaching certificate of any Philadelphia teacher who strikes.

Evans told me imposing a contract would be the wrong thing to do anyway. He said the idea back in 1998 was to change labor relations and get more state funding, which happened at the time. Just hammering the union now, he said, would poison the atmosphere in classrooms.

"At the end of the day, learning is a volunteer behavior," Evans said, "and creating a hostile environment from a work perspective in my view would be counterproductive.

Passions are high in the teachers union, but the pressures on the district are intense. State Budget Secretary Charles Zogby says the School Reform Commission needs to get a big package of concessions from the union, or the state will withhold $45 million in funding the district needs.

"You know, you listen to the teachers union president Jerry Jordan, and it seems like he's on another planet," Zogby said. "There doesn't seem to be any recognition of the district's financial state."

When I asked Jordan about that, he said with a smile in his voice, "Charles Zogby is entitled to his opinion. I'm here in the city, on the ground, in schools and classrooms."

Union attorney Willig said nobody will benefit if the district tries to impose its will on teachers.

"Invoking Act 46 would be a nuclear option," Willig said. "I know that the federation believes it is in everyone's best interest to reach a successful bargaining agreement. I would hope that the member of the school reform commission would fee likewise."

School district spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district hopes to reach an agreement with the union, but that it "will consider exercising any of its options under the state law."

So, come next week, you could have the school district imposing terms on angry teachers and a nasty court battle.

You could have a work stoppage that's not technically a strike, or negotiations could simply drag on.

What's hard to envision is an amicable agreement.

This story was reported through a news coverage partnership between NBC10.com and NewsWorks.org

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