Philadelphia: no general strike, but teacher dispute not fully settled

A relieved Philadelphia is happy that it did not have the country's first general strike in 50 years, scheduled for Oct. 28 and averted literally at the 11th hour.

But few here seem to think that a state court order ending the city's 50 -day-old teachers strike - and therefore canceling a one-day walkout by other sympathetic unionists - is more than a temporary measure. And few pretend that the rest of the nation somehow failed to notice what was happening.

''When you have 50-day school strikes, what company is going to bring a plant here if they can't get their workers' children educated?'' laments Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce vice-president Dan Noonan. ''It has undone a lot of the good work we've done in terms of making this an attractive city.''

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) struck the public schools Sept. 8 to protest the layoffs of 3,500 of its members (there were 22,000 teachers in the system) and the cancellation of a scheduled 10 percent pay raise. The school district, with 213,000 students, argued that both were necessary because of a $ 223 million budget deficit.

In the meantime, attitudes on both sides of the dispute have become polarized. More than $240,000 in fines were levied against the PFT since a back-to-work order was issued Oct. 7, and 53 strikers were cited for contempt of an injunction against mass picketing.

Late Oct. 27, a commonwealth court ordered the teachers back to work and those laid off reinstated. The union, claiming victory, has complied, but the order does not affect the pay increase, which is to be renegotiated before a state mediator.

The general strike was called off when PFT leaders voted to obey the court ruling. But some here question what impact it would have had anyway. City police were not planning to support it, and firefighters and several other unions had expected only off-duty members to turn out for a mass march on City Hall. Although this congested city, fourth largest in the United States, is easily tied up by traffic blockages, the head of the local transport workers union did not order bus, subway, and trolley drivers to stay off the job.

City Hall officials said they expected only a small number of municipal employees to join the demonstration, and hotels, utilities, and other in the private sector felt likewise.

''We would just have tried to keep things moving in center city,'' said police department spokesman Don Fair. ''But we're used to it. People have been circling the wagons around City Hall for years. We pretty much let them do their thing, as long as those who need to get through can get through.''

Mayor William Green III, who had sought a 10 percent property tax increase to fund the pay hike only to be turned down by a majority of City Council members, called the court decision a victory only ''for the kids.''

Still to be found is the money to pay for the balance of the teachers union contract with the city. Offers of state money have been forthcoming, and the city has realized a $1.5 million a day saving for each day the teachers were out. But the estimated cost of the pay hike is $50 million. And the district still has the deficit of $223 million.

Bargaining between the city and the teachers union is expected to resume within the week, and PFT secretary Carolyn Phillips says: ''I think things are going to be OK. The city wouldn't want to go through the same thing next September.''

One who thinks things are not going to be all right, however, is Norman Newberg, an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania.

''I was stunned,'' he says of the latest court order. ''While I was pleased for the children, who certainly deserve to be in school, I am not pleased for the city. What does it mean when a city pays its teachers the highest wages in the country, but there's no money for textbooks, and the buildings are in disrepair.''

Dr. Newberg says Philadelphians ''are drawing racial and class lines'' around the schools, with white voters saying they are no longer willing to pay taxes to support the 70 percent of students who are black.

''This city is so polarized, there is so little faith and trust,'' he says, ''that there must be new coalitions. I would set up a structure that makes the key actors available to each other, that allows people to see the the same information and feel the same pressures.''

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