The future of the teacher’s union at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, Local 3505, is in jeopardy following a Dec. 4 meeting between the union and school board representatives.
According to a joint statement, the board informed the school that it would withdraw recognition of the union when its current contract expires in August. It is a decision, the board said, that will best serve the school’s mission, but the decision could also weaken the teachers’ ability to negotiate benefits.
The Dec. 4 joint statement from the board and union — signed by board President George Gordon, board First Vice President Howard Treatman and union co-Presidents Minna Ziskind and Hannah Soffer — summarized the meeting.
“On Dec. 4, 2018, representatives of the Board of Directors of Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy and its teacher’s union, Local 3505, met to discuss the future of union representation at the school,” the statement said. “The Board communicated to the Union’s representatives that, as of the expiration of the current contract in August 2019, it will withdraw recognition from the Union.
“The Board asked the Union to join it in a collaborative transition. The Union is conferring with its members to discuss the Board’s request, and it is anticipated that the parties will sit down again, in the very near future, to determine how to move forward. Both sides want to assure all members of the Barrack community that they are committed to seeing this process through in a manner that does not impair the quality of the educational experience for students.”
Gordon said the decision will best position the school in carrying out its mission.
The board, he noted, informed the union of its decision months in advance in order to be transparent and cooperative.
“As reflected in the Joint Statement, the Barrack Board informed the Union that, as of the expiration of the current contract in August 2019, it would be withdrawing recognition of the Union,” Gordon said in an email. “We believe that this decision best positions the school to continue our unique mission of incorporating deeply-rooted Jewish values in a rigorous intellectual environment.
“Rather than waiting for the current contract to expire to inform the Union of its decision, the Barrack Board informed the Union in December 2018 so as to be transparent with the hope that we will be able to work together towards a mutually-agreeable transition.”
Stephen Richman, managing partner at Markowitz & Richman — which specializes in labor, employment, injury and workers’ compensation law — said that without a union the school could reduce teachers’ benefits or offer different benefits to different teachers. Unions give employees security and protection and can be helpful, Richman said, but some people don’t like unions or don’t want to have a partner in deciding how to run things.
“Whatever benefits the teachers have — I really don’t know the details of it — they didn’t grow on a tree,” Richman said. “They were negotiated, and the employees gave up something to get something else. That’s just the way negotiations work.”
In lieu of its own statement, the school pointed to Gordon’s comment.
The presidents of the parent-teacher organization also referred to Gordon, as well as to Alex Stroker, Barrack’s chief operating and development officer.
Ziskind said the teachers want to keep the union. She added that union members are still in discussions following the joint statement.
“The teachers want to keep the union for the good of the students and the good of the school, so we’re exploring options,” she said.
But those options may not be too bright, based on what occurred when Perelman Jewish Day School’s board withdrew recognition of its union five years ago, according to Richman.
In 2014, AFT Pennsylvania, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board after the Perelman board’s decision to withdraw recognition. Perelman argued that the NLRB lacked jurisdiction because it is a religious institution, and the agency dismissed the charges.
“Jewish day school education is essential for a strong and vibrant Jewish community,” Perelman board President Ruth Horowitz said in an email. “Barrack Hebrew Academy has outstanding teachers and administrators. We look forward to a positive outcome as we advance our mission on behalf of our students.”
While teachers unions in public schools continue to remain strong — and have fallen under criticism for putting teachers’ needs over students — the NLRB does not “assert jurisdiction over employees of a religious organization who are involved in effectuating the religious purpose of the organization, such as teachers in church-operated schools,” according to its site.
Barbara Goodman, AFT Pennsylvania communications director, said it is up to the union to decide whether it wants to file charges, but AFT Pennsylvania will support that decision either way.
“We believe that every teacher, every school counselor, every school employee has the right to join a union and bargain collectively,” Goodman said. “Whether they are at a public school, a private school, a charter school, employees should be able to choose.”
Unions have become increasingly rare at Jewish day schools over the years, the Forward reported in an article soon after the Perelman case. “But with its strong union,” the Forward wrote, “Barrack is an outlier among American Jewish day schools.”
That no longer seems to be the case.
“Most religious organizations, whether it’s the Catholic church or the Jewish organizations, they’re all in favor of supporting working people and working people’s rights, except when it’s in their own house,” Richman said. “Then they don’t like it so much anymore.”
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