Standing on principle, public school teachers are determined to salvage as much as they can from union contracts negotiated in their cities when times seemed better.
In Philadelphia and Boston this week, members of local teachers unions have authorized strikes, not for higher pay, but for what they contend are breaches of their contracts. the 21,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had pickets on line Sept. 8. Schools in the city officially open Sept. 10.
Since the end of school last spring, 3,500 Philadelphia teachers have been laid off, and city officials have proposed the dismissal of still more.
In Boston the strike would not begin until Sept. 21, pending resolution of the issue that triggered the confrontation between teachers and the city school department: recent layoffs of nearly 1,000 union members because of declining enrollments and tax revenues. The layoffs were announced despite a contract -- agreed to last year -- that rules out such action by the city.
Meanwhile, strikes in Pennsylvania and New York, plus others in mostly small districts in Michigan, Illinois, and Rhode Island, kept about 250,000 students out of school Sept. 8. About 22,800 teachers were involved. In Massachusetts, more than 200 other contracts between public school districts and local teacher associations are unresolved as communities try to determine how much money will be available for settlements in the face of the statewide property tax-cutting measure known as Proposition 2 1/2.
But with their contracts still in force, Philadelphia and Boston teachers are protesting the layoffs even though local courts have ruled them legal and although -- here, at least -- there is an evident lack of public support for the union position.
When Boston school superintendent Robert R. Spillane threatened to dismiss any teacher who strikes, one newspaper polled readers to find whether they agreed with his stand. By almost 4 to 1, respondents said strikers should be fired. But the teachers, whose numbers have gone up even as the number of students has dropped, have been put in the position of competing for public sympathy in this safety-conscious city with unionized police and firemen, hundreds of whom also were laid off because of budgetary restraints.
Greater Boston has an estimated pool of 7,000 unemployed teachers, and Dr. Spillane has said it should be possible to draw on them if necessary to keep schools open.
According to Philadelphia Federation of Teachers spokesman Marvin Ginsburg, the court reling in his city is being appealed. He said his group feels it has "unprecedented public support" for its position. "They know we have a contract, " he said.
Philadelphia, however, faces an estimated $223 million school budget deficit this year, and Mayor William J. Green III said in a speech last week: "The fact is that 10 years of political cave-ins, bad management, constant and continual concessions, and repeated failures to heed the warning signals have brought Philadelphia's school system to the brink of complete bankruptcy."
Mayor Green asked the teachers union to forgo the 10 percent pay raise it had won in bargaining with the city school board last year.
Replied teacher federation president John Murray on a weekend television program: "A strike would set the record very clear and very straight that a sacred item like a contract has to be upheld."
Mindful of the confrontation between President Reagan and professional air traffic controllers at the federal level, however, Mr. Murray said he hoped the practice of firing government employees who strike "will not filter down to Philadelphia."
Boston Teachers Union president Kathleen Kelley said her 6,500-member group would reconsider its strike vote Sept. 20 if school administrators come up with a way to resolve the matter. But she declined to be specific on the terms of a resolution, saying: "We want to leave no stone unturned. . . . We're willing to sit down and reason with people to find a solution."
But the kind of solution that might be forthcoming is uncertain. The local court decision on layoffs is being appealed here, too. Mayor Kevin H. White has authorized no more money for the public schools than he did last year: $210 million. The school department, then under other leadership, overspent that amount in 1980-81 by $24 million, however, and has been under great pressure to cut costs.
The parties to the dispute have been attempting to persuade the mayor to spend up to an additional $6 million to rehire furloughed teachers. That money could be available if Mayor White is successful in persuading the Massachusetts Legislature to approve a $75 million bonding package for the city. But the Legislature is not yet in session and, at best, will have only a week to debate and vote on the proposal. Its prospects for passage are unknown at present.
In the meantime, it should not be difficult for the teachers union to keep the strike issue before the public despite the fact that schools now can open on schedule Sept. 9. Its Sept. 21 strike date falls on day before the primary election for candidates for the Boston School Committee.