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Pittsburgh teachers union members vote to authorize strike

Jamie Martines
| Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, 7:00 p.m.

The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers voted Monday to authorize a strike vote in the wake of stalled contract negotiations with Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Strike authorization ballots were mailed to 2,955 union members Jan. 29. The ballots were due Monday and were counted at 4:30 p.m. the same day. Of the 2,453 ballots that were returned, 2,309 members, or 94 percent, voted in favor of authorizing the union's negotiations team to take a strike vote if needed.

"The PFT has gone to the table for the last year and a half fully prepared to negotiate, and we have reached agreement on a number of issues," President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said in a statement following the vote. "However, we are still negotiating on issues that are critical to a highly effective teaching and learning environment."

The PFT Executive Board will meet Thursday to discuss the vote, followed by an all-day session of negotiations with the district Friday. The union must vote in favor of a strike and give the district 48 hours' notice of intent to strike.

The union has been in negotiation with the district for a year and a half. One-year interim agreements for teachers, paraprofessionals and technical-clerical employees all expired on June 30, and members of all three groups have been working without a contract since then.

The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board appointed a third-party fact finder in October to review the negotiations, which include health care benefits, extending contract lengths and salaries.

Both sides agreed to abandon a performance-based salary schedule and return to a traditional salary schedule in 2017, according to the fact finder's report. A disagreement stems from how to create new salary schedules for teachers hired since the start of the performance-based salary schedule and how much in raises to give to other teachers.

The union sought raises of 2 percent for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years and 2.5 percent in 2019-20, according to the report. The district offered 1.5 percent raises, according to the report.

Also among the sticking points is the district's proposal to allow principals to set class schedules and teaching assignments — teachers currently have the power to override those decisions. Though the fact-finder report released in November recommends upholding the district's proposal, the PFT wants to preserve teachers' control over scheduling preferences.

The PFT, which represents about 3,000 teachers, paraprofessionals and technical-clerical employees, last went on strike in 1975. The strike lasted 54 days, according to the union. The district has more than 50 schools and about 26,000 students.

Major strikes and lockouts have become less common over the past 30 years, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2017, there were seven major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers, the second lowest number of major work stoppages recorded in a year since the bureau started collecting such data in 1947. About 25,000 workers were idled across those work stoppages in 2017.

Pennsylvania didn't see any major work stoppages in 2017, according to the data. In 2016, a three-day strike by the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties affected 5,100 workers, and a seven-day strike by the Transport Workers Union, Local 234, in Philadelphia affected 5,200 workers.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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