How Unions Use Students as Bargaining Chips

Note: This commentary was originally published by The Washington Times.

When government unions engage in labor disputes, they use their power and monopoly to remind the public of the value of their service. However, schoolchildren should never have to bear the brunt of the union’s grievances.

That’s exactly what’s happening in Philadelphia right now. In its ongoing disputes with the city and state governments, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has sided against the city’s students — students who deserve the opportunity afforded by education to escape from the cycle of violence and poverty.

After a summer of contract negotiations and high-profile mudslinging, school began on time in Philadelphia, but the public schools remain in limbo as negotiators continue to squabble over teacher contract details. To balance its budget, the district solicited aid from a number of sources: $90 million from the city, $50 million in additional funds from the state, and $133 million in concessions from the union.

Make no mistake: Both the union’s cuts and the taxpayers’ new costs are difficult to swallow. However, the city and state have already delivered on their end of the bargain. City officials have agreed to give the school district additional money, while state taxpayers will pony up $50 million. The state’s money, however, will only be given if the union agrees to consider reforms.

In spite of these concessions, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has not been cooperative. The union has thus far refused to endorse necessary changes to benefits or compensation. The consequences of their inaction hits their members, and those they purport to serve, hardest: Without these savings, teachers will have to be let go, and students will suffer.

The real victims of this process are Philadelphia’s children. Whether you look at state or national benchmarks, 70 percent to 80 percent of Philadelphia students aren’t reading or doing math at grade level. Worse, 40 percent of students don’t graduate at all.

These children need all the help they can get.

Despite this, the union steadfastly refuses to cooperate. Yet a look at their contract shows they have ground to give.

The now-expired union contract provided virtually free health care for all employees. This alone cost the district $165 million, with an extra $66 million for vision, prescription and dental benefits.

On top of these benefits that taxpayers will never know in the private sector, the district provides union members with $2.6 million in tax dollars for a legal-services fund that covered employees’ personal needs, such as preparing a will or buying a home. The contracts also mandate the district provide $15.3 million in severance pay.

Philadelphians simply can’t afford these costs, which have continued to grow in recent years even as the district has lost students. Raising taxes to temporarily fill the funding gap without addressing the root problem guarantees the same issues will pop up next year and thereafter, until real reforms are adopted.

The financial forecast for the school district is grim. After years of the state and school district putting off payments, Philadelphia’s pension costs alone will exceed this year’s $300 million budget gap within a few years.

It’s simply not possible for the city, mired in economic woe, to tax and spend its way out of this problem. Structural reforms that address these rising benefit costs provide the only lasting solutions — yet union leaders remain unwilling to even consider these reforms.

While school doors have opened in the City of Brotherly Love, teachers and students are still shrouded in doubt over the long-term future as negotiations continue. Calm heads and compromise from all sides are needed to put students, who stand to lose the most, first in these discussions.

That the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, like others unions before it, has turned these very students into bargaining chips only makes addressing real reforms all the more difficult — and that’s a lesson that extends well beyond Philadelphia.

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Nathan A. Benefield is director of policy analysis at the Commonwealth Foundation,
Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.