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Perelman Teachers Running Out of Options to Save Union Representation

June 19, 2014 By:
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Teachers, alumni and parents listen to AFT Pennsylvania head Ted Kirsch at a meeting on June 18, 2014. Photo by Amishai Gottlieb.

The clock is ticking on the Perelman Jewish Day School teachers’ union contract, which expires on Aug. 31, and the educators are running out of options.

In March, the school’s teachers were made aware of the school board’s decision to no longer recognize the union — the American Federation of Teachers — that has represented them since 1976. They have been searching for ways to combat the move ever since.

An effort in April to hand out informative flyers to Perelman parents dropping their children off for the school’s annual model Passover Seder at Temple Adath Israel in Merion Station was met with relative indifference.

A petition with 1,100 signatures to support the teachers, which alumni read at a board meeting, made no impact.

A May public forum to discuss the issue and possible avenues of recourse drew some 70 teachers, alumni and a few parents, but brought no new developments.

The most recent gathering, which took place on June 18 with Rabbi Jill Jacobs, an expert on matters of civil law within Judaism, offered Jewish wisdom but not solutions.

The meeting’s 45 attendees gathered at the Ludington Library in Bryn Mawr, where they learned about Jewish civil law.

“The brunt of Jewish law is on the side of the workers and on the side of the unions,” said Jacobs, who brought samples from Jewish texts such as the Mishnah and the Talmud, and even more contemporary works from Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, to support her claim.

Jacobs is the executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, a New York-based organization comprised of rabbis from various streams of Judaism that fights for social justice from a Jewish perspective. But the legality of the board’s disbandment of the union will be determined by the federal courts, since Perelman is a private school and therefore does not fall under state jurisdiction, and not by a rabbinic court.

Those in attendance clamored for an update on the AFT’s filing of unfair labor practice charges against the Conservative-affiliated elementary school.

“We went to the Philadelphia courts and the National Labor Relations Board to file our several complaints about the unfair practices of the Perelman board,” said Ted Kirsch, president of American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania. “They then forwarded our complaints to Washington — they didn’t decide to reject our complaints.”

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 states that employees of any profession reserve the right to be represented in collective bargaining agreements “through representatives of their own choosing.” However, Perelman board members have asserted that judicial precedent set by the National Labor Relations Board v. Cath­olic Bishop of Chicago case in 1979 excludes private religious schools from protection under the federal act. The U.S. Su­preme Court ruled that while congressional intent of the 1935 act implied the inclusion of lay teachers at religious schools to the federal collective bargaining agreement, the lack of wording actually specifying that means that such teachers are, in fact, exempt.

But “it’s not the religious issue,” according to Kirsch. The Supreme Court case “had to do with teaching religion — none of our cases deal with that issue.”

The other cases Kirsch was referring to are similar disputes between teachers and school boards at a private Muslim school in Alexandria, Va., and Duquesne University, a private Catholic college in Pittsburgh. These parallel cases suggest that Perelman teachers may get their day in the federal courts “because the implication of this is much greater than just Perelman,” Kirsch said. 

However, he conceded, “We’re waiting, we don’t know how long it’s going to take. It could take weeks, months and, I hate to even think of the fact that it could take years.”

In the meantime, the Perelman teachers’ union contract will expire on Aug. 31, at which time they will transfer to individual contracts made directly with the board.

What this implies for the teachers is up for debate.

The school board, led by parent Aaron Freiwald, has said the elimination of the union contract will lead to “more robust collaboration” between administrators and faculty. But teachers supportive of the union, organized by longtime Perelman teacher and union president Lisa Richman, have expressed fears that the board may “clean house” now that all the school’s teachers have signed a handbook outlining new guidelines for employment, including a caveat that allows the board to “alter, vary, or amend” contracts “at any time.” 

Very few parents have been willing to publicly comment on the debate and many teachers have been absent from the union support meetings. Those in attendance have repeatedly alluded to an atmosphere of fear as the reason for their colleagues’ absence. However, one parent at the most recent meeting offered an alternative explanation:

“There seems to be what you might call a ‘cold’ union here,” said Randall Miller, a Wyncote resident whose daughter just finished kindergarten at Perelman’s Forman Center. “Many of the teachers feel in a way that the board may have been doing some of their bidding for them because they could not speak up against the union because of the union rules. I can’t go fight for the teachers for the union if the teachers don’t want that, and what I found was that there seems to be a fair split.”

Miller added that parents also seem to be divided into three camps: those who are indifferent — the largest contingent, according to him; those who feel the board should be given free rein; and his small vocal, pro-union group.

“Though I’m disgusted with the board for acting the way they have, the bottom line is that the school itself is a wonderful school,” said Miller.

Beyond waiting for the federal courts to review their case, Kirsch was enigmatic about other avenues of dissent the union and Perelman teachers might consider as the August deadline draws nearer.

“If we don’t have an answer by then, we have to be able to know what we’re doing,” Kirsch said. “I hesitate to publicly ever announce strategy — but rest assured, we’re working on this.”

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