Transparency important in negotiations

Pennsylvania Act 88 of 1992 has had success in curbing the number of public school teacher strikes.

Whereas the Keystone State experienced more than 700 teacher walkouts between 1970 (the year Act 195, the Public Employee Relations Act, became law) and 1992, there have been “only” 240 strikes since Act 88’s arrival 26 years ago that was geared toward earlier contract settlements.

However, now, a quarter century since Act 88 was enacted, Harrisburg has begun a review of the law, not only to evaluate its impact but also for the purpose of receiving and reviewing new proposals for strengthening it.

A part of that teacher-contract-law review occurred on April 20 as state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, met with some area school officials and solicitors at the Bedford County Courthouse. At that meeting, ideas for improving the law were put forth, and the pros and cons of various suggestions were discussed.

Perhaps the session’s best recommendation was that the public be given more access to contract proposals.

Currently, school district residents usually are kept in the dark about contract details until after the pact has been ratified by teachers and the school board. That means taxpayers actually contribute little directly toward what’s decided at the bargaining table.

Ensuring better proposed-contract transparency would seem to be much less controversial than proposals such as forbidding teachers from striking, or mandating that teachers lose a certain amount of pay for the time they’re on strike.

As an article in the April 21 Mirror noted: With flexibility to make up instructional days missed, teachers can go on strike and be sure to recover their pay and benefits, unlike union employees in the private sector.

On the subject of transparency, one suggestion made on April 20 was that final school board and teacher contract proposals be made public before a strike can be called. Actually, it would be better if the public were allowed to see all contract proposals before they are ratified, even if negotiations aren’t heading toward a walkout.

It’s public money that pays for whatever provisions a teachers contract contains, and taxpayers, before any ratification vote, should have access to data on how their tax money is intended to be allocated.

At the Bedford Courthouse session, it was suggested that more than the current 48-hour notice for authorizing a strike be required — a not unreasonable proposal. Also not unreasonable was the opposition voiced against requiring binding arbitration in some circumstances.

The downside to binding arbitration were acknowledged.

Currently, arbitration is an option, but the negotiating parties have the right to reject a neutral arbitrator’s recommendations.

In the end, participants in the April 20 meeting were supportive of the state General Assembly making changes to Act 88 to try to reduce the number of strikes even further.

The decade or so after Act 195 became law were chaotic from a strike standpoint because of teachers’ low pay and so-so fringe benefits up to that time. The chaotic years were the foundation for the better pay and benefits, commensurate with their training and responsibilities, that teachers now enjoy.

The dominant point, going forward, is that any changes to Act 88 that might be forthcoming must be in the public’s, and well as education’s, best interests.

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