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Sink or Swim

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Titanic-Sink.jpgThe Inquirer inadvertently served up a compare-and-contrast moment in the Friday paper by running two stories about contract settlements side by side on the front page.

The first was about the musicians at the Philadelphia Orchestra approving a new contract.  The other was a piece about the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers approving a deal with the Philadelphia School District.

Both are employees in financially troubled institutions, facing increased competition and a declining audience.  In the orchestra's case, the problem is empty seats in the Kimmel Center.  In the district's case, it is empty seats in the public schools.

The orchestra is in bankruptcy; the district is not.  But, the district did have to make $700 million+ in cuts from its budget this year and laid off 2,000 employees -- about 1,500 of which were teachers.

The orchestra musicians were asked to make major wage, work and benefit concessions by management and they did.  The new contract includes a pay cut, an increase in work hours, work rule concessions and the end of the musicians' defined-benefit pension plan. 

The teachers were also asked to make major concessions that were never laid out in detail by the district, but totaled $75 million. The PFT made no concessions.  It extended its contract with the district for one year; members will get a three percent raise due in January.

The PFT did allow the district to defer $58 million in payments it owes to the union's health and welfare fund, with a promise to come up with $28 million in payments at some future date. Obviously, the fund has enough in its reserves to cover the medical premiums it pays for members, so this concession is unlikely to effect the rank-and-file.

Why did orchestra musicians make these painful concessions and the teachers did not?

For the musicians, the answer is simple. They really had no choice. The cost of running the orchestra greatly exceeds its revenue. It is in bankruptcy. It needs to cut costs in order to assure the wealthy angels and foundations that it is worthy of their support.

(These givers have always made up the difference between the orchestra's income and expenses, but the gap has become so wide in recent years, they had grown increasingly reluctant to add more and more money to the pile.)

The musicians had to weigh their own personal interests against the long-term needs of their organization. In the end it was seen as better to make sacrifices and have an orchestra than to refuse and have none.

This is only the first step. The concessions made by the musicians won't fill any of those empty seats. The orchestra management has to find a way to do that. Management has offered up a strategic plan to meet those goals. Personally, I find it vague and somewhat mushy conceptually, but no one will be able to say the musicians did not step forward and do their part.

How did the teachers union escape making painful concessions?

It looks a tactical decision on the part of the district's new management. With Arlene Ackerman fired and a big turnover in the School Reform Commission, the district's leadership decided it didn't need a labor war on its hands. So, it basically agreed to kick the can down the road for another year -- and the union was more than happy to oblige.

As to a strategic plan, the district has none. Ackerman's plan for the district consisted of a laser-like focus on the lowest-performing schools, which got extra money and attention. And that was pretty much it. Perhaps she was too busy burning bridges to come up with more.

But, much like the orchestra, the district needs to take a broader look at its position and develop a strategy to match it. If I was in the district, the question I would be asking myself today is: Assuming that Gov. Corbett is re-elected, how many students will be enrolled in the city's public schools eight years from now? The schools have lost 50,000 students in the last decade. Are they on a path to lose 50,000 more?

Because it looks as if the governor and the Republicans in Harrisburg are trying to make it easy to leave, what with their proposals for vouchers, a more lenient policy for creating charter schools, and an improved scholarship program for students who want to attend private or parochial schools. The have staked out their position, but what of the district?

Any strategy for public educators to counteract these trends has to involve new ways of doing business in the public schools. For the union, that may mean changing cherished work rules, working longer school days, and other concessions.

I wonder what path the PFT will take, if confronted with such demands? Will personal interests trump the long-term needs of the district? Will union members be willing to suffer pain to enjoy potential gains?

Those are rhetorical questions, by the way. The PFT lacks the will and desire to make the changes that will need to be made. They can't help themselves. They'd rather see the ship go down.

-- Tom Ferrick

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