Pittsburgh teachers have voted to authorize a strike amid stalled contract talks

Here’s how they got to this point — flirting with the first citywide teacher strike in 4 decades.

School buses

In the midst of prolonged contract talks, Pittsburgh Public Schools teachers voted “overwhelmingly” to authorize a strike if it’s deemed necessary, bringing the district and tens of thousands of students one step closer to the first citywide teachers strike in four decades.

According to the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers — the union representing more than 2,000 Pittsburgh public school teachers and educators — of 2,453 total mail-in ballots cast by union members, 2,309 (94 percent) voted in favor of authorizing the PFT Executive Board/Negotiations Team to strike if needed and 144 (6 percent) voted against authorizing a strike. The ballots were tallied today, with results announced early this evening.

“Our members do not take this vote lightly. It has been more than 40 years since the PFT has gone on strike,” a statement from the union read. “We want to be in the classroom with our students. This is clearly a demonstration that our members feel strongly about the items that we are still negotiating and want a contract that is good for students and fair to educators.”

The executive board meets Thursday to discuss the vote before an all-day negotiation session Friday.

A district spokesperson did not immediately respond to an after-hours inquiry from The Incline but had previously said the district and Pittsburgh Board of Public Education were “committed to continuing with bargaining and reaching the best agreement for everyone.”

Even though the strike authorization vote has come back in favor of the option, that doesn’t mean a strike is guaranteed to happen. If it did, though, it would represent the first PPS teacher strike in more than 40 years, as well as an escalation in a dysfunctional and prolonged round of contract talks with district officials and a massive inconvenience for thousands of Pittsburgh families.

What led to the vote

Last month, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT), the union representing Pittsburgh Public Schools’ roughly 2,000 teachers, announced it would mail ballots on the strike authorization question to its members.  

The move came years after the June 30, 2015, expiration of a Collective Bargaining Agreement between the PFT and district. The PFT, which was already engaged in negotiations months before then with the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education, eventually agreed to a two-year extension.

But the Board and PFT failed to reach a subsequent deal and have remained at loggerheads since the contract extension expired in June 2017.

In the course of those negotiations, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board appointed a neutral third-party fact finder to come in and arbitrate. A report released by the fact finder in October of 2017 detailed sticking points including, most notably, pay raises, pay scales and health care benefits, and followed each with the fact finder’s own recommendations. (Similar issues prompted the last walkoff in 1975, which kept 62,300 Pittsburgh students from attending classes at 105 schools for a tense two months.)

In some cases, the fact finder sided with the PFT. In others, the fact finder sided with the Board. In a few, the fact finder made a recommendation somewhere in the middle.

But the report and its findings were rejected by the PFT, which cited a failure by the author to respond to the federation’s proposal for lower class sizes and how to address or close “the gap in pay for early childhood teachers and our school age teachers,” the Post-Gazette reported at the time.

The fact finder’s recommendations are by no means binding, since both parties did not vote to accept them, district spokesperson Ebony Pugh explained.

A deal has remained elusive ever since.

That brings us to the PFT strike authorization vote tallied today.

In public school districts including West Chicago’s and St. Paul, Minnesota’s, where strike authorization votes were both recently held and where both turned out in favor of the option, the move is seen as a tool that gives the union more leverage in negotiations. Conversely, the move is also frequently criticized by school district administrators who view it as a barrier to actually reaching a contract deal both sides would accept.

In a statement announcing that the Pittsburgh authorization vote would be called, PFT President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said, “Education in the 21st century demands differentiation and individualization to meet the needs of students. The job of educating young people cannot be done by disempowering educators and placing the district in a less competitive position. It is time to settle these contracts and do what is best for students and educators.”

Meanwhile, a statement from the Pittsburgh Public Schools Board president, Dr. Regina Holley, stressed the higher calling of public education and the need to focus on the service provided and the lives impacted. “Within these buildings lies the greatest opportunity to change lives in any corner of our city,” Holley wrote. “Now, more than ever, we must commit ourselves to the hard work that meaningful change requires.”

The PFT represents 2,244 Pittsburgh Public Schools teachers and professional employees, 568 paraprofessionals and 20 technical-clerical employees. It is currently negotiating three separate contracts on their behalf. The PFT says members of all three units have been working without a contract since June.

But maybe the most pressing question for much of the city is not how it came to this but what happens if a strike is called.

What happens next

If a strike is called, it wouldn’t happen immediately or without warning: The union would have to give Pittsburgh Public Schools 48-hours notice before commencing a walk-off.

With that said, some are urging district administrators to ensure contingency plans are in place for the district’s more than 23,000 students should their teachers refuse to come into work.

“We know families rely on school as a place to go that is safe, that provides an education, that allows parents to work,” James Fogarty, executive director of the A+ Schools organization, a Pittsburgh-based community alliance, recently told City Paper. “Many of those families are doing hourly work, where taking time off means the family doesn’t get paid. You’re exacerbating the problems of poverty if you don’t have a place for children to go.”

In response, Pugh said, “In the event that we reach an impasse and the PFT elects to strike, teachers will not report and schools would close while the union is on strike. The Pennsylvania Department of Education would determine the number of days the union can strike so students meet the required 180 days of instruction.”

She added, “The District would keep parents and other stakeholders informed through the District’s website, social media sites and other forms of notification. We all know that something of that nature greatly affects families.”