(April 14) On the eve of the Jewish high holy days of Passover, union leaders and Jewish labor activists in Philadelphia and beyond are ramping up efforts to defeat a plan by one of the area’s small private religious schools to bust its teachers union. Both groups are outraged at the school’s implicit claim that there’s a conflict between Judaism and workers’ rights.
The issue erupted late last month when the board of the Perelman Jewish Day School notified the school’s roughly 60 teachers that it would no longer negotiate with their long-established labor union. Instead, the board proclaimed, each teacher must make individual arrangements with the school administrators for the conditions of future employment. The union busting was justified, the Perelman teachers were told, as a measure to advance the religious objectives of the K-5 school, and was legally supported by court rulings reaching all the way to the Supreme Court. The school was likely referring to the high court’s 1979 ruling in NLRB v Catholic Bishop of Chicago that religious schools were exempt from some labor law.
“Everybody feels that we were disrespected, and undermined” by the school board decision, says Lisa Richman, president of the Perelman Jewish Day School Faculty Association Local 3578, a unit of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “Everybody [on the faculty] is petrified, or scared, or angry,” she says.
But the fight back is now officially underway. Last week, teacher representatives filed an unfair labor practice charge against Perelman at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), says Barbara Goodman, communications director for the statewide umbrella union AFT Pennsylvania. The charge asserts that Perelman broke the law “when it threatened employees, telling the teachers they would be without jobs in September if they did not waive their rights” under the National Labor Relations Act “and accept the board’s withdrawal of union recognition,” according to an AFT statement.
And Perelman was also wrong in denying the union the right to represent its members, the union charges. The Perelman board “violated federal labor law further when it offered teachers jobs for next school year without negotiating or consulting with the union; when it refused to negotiate with the union; and when it denied union members representation by their AFT Pennsylvania staff representatives during meetings where the board discussed terms of employment with teachers,”the AFT says.
As a Jew who grew up in the Conservative movement and a union leader, I’m appalled at what has transpired at the Perelman Jewish Day School. Management has taken it upon itself to strip the educators of their voice and their union, in direct violation of core tenets of our faith honoring the treatment of our workers and our teachers. The rights to association and to organize are fundamental to a just and democratic society. What message does it send to our students and their parents when a Jewish day school violates these precepts by destroying a union that’s been in place for four decades?
No doubt the Perelman school will assemble its students for a Passover seder to tell the communal story of the journey from oppression and slavery in Egypt to liberation. I call on the Perelman school to change its own Passover story and, instead of oppressing its teachers, to reverse its decision to strip teachers of their union.
Weingarten’s statement was met with enthusiasm at a Pennsylvania AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh April 10, Goodman reports. The convention delegates unanimously passed a resolution in support of the Perelman teachers.
Weingarten’s references to her Jewish heritage resonate deeply in this labor fight, says Lynne Fox, Chairwoman of the Philadelphia Jewish Labor Committee (JLC). The Jewish community in the area has been shocked by the events at Perelman, she says, and there is strong support for the teachers union.
The JLC issued a statement in support of the teachers:
The Philadelphia JLC stands firmly with the teachers and their union as they fight for their collective bargaining rights, and also in alignment with tenets of Conservative Judaism.
By dismantling the union and denying employees the power of collective bargaining, the Perelman Jewish Day School is acting in opposition both to major halakhic authorities and to the official position of the Conservative Movement.
Less formally, Fox comments, “It’s difficult to wrap your head around this whole thing. The Perelman board took all the steps against the union in secret, yet it says that it is was done for the benefit of the students. If the goal is to benefit the students, why wouldn’t you do this in the open, so the parents and teachers could be part of the discussion?”
Fox says that Jewish labor activists from around the country have been rallying to the side of the Perelman teachers. She says that these activists have all echoed the sentiment expressed in the Philadelphia JLC’s statement: “Jewish tradition has been clear and consistent – the treatment of workers and their right to organize are among the basic underpinnings of a just society.”
Attempts by Working In These Times to reach Perelman board vice president Aaron Freiwald for comment were unsuccessful. Freiwald, of the Philadelphia law firm Layser & Freiwald, has identified himself as one of the authors of the plan to eliminate the union at school.
Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. This post originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog.