Late last month, Perelman Jewish Day School notified its teachers that their 38-year union tradition would no longer be honored by the school’s administration and board.
The board’s unilateral action — taken without consulting parents or teachers — demonstrated a lack of respect for both parents who entrust their children to the school and for teachers who have educated generations of Schechter/Perelman students and instilled in them pride in their Jewish heritage.
Teachers, who have had union representation for nearly four decades, were stunned by the board’s vote to withdraw union recognition.
Since September, the board has rebuffed or ignored every union request to sit together, face-to-face, to discuss issues that have arisen at the school during the past few turbulent years, some of the turbulence revolving around the loss of the Saligman Middle School, which was absorbed by the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. Instead of communicating with parents and teachers, the board spent 10 months secretly researching how to strip teachers of rights guaranteed under federal labor law. The teachers have offered an olive branch, urging the board to rescind its decision and open a dialogue with teachers and their chosen representatives.
The board has turned a deaf ear. Now, without any dialogue, parents must accept an action that will likely result in the unjust dismissal of their children’s beloved teachers. The teachers, who have been threatened with the loss of their jobs, must agree to relinquish their rights and accept a lopsided employment agreement that allows PJDS to “unilaterally change, revise, or discontinue its rules and policies,” to fire “any employee with or without notice and with or without cause” and “to make changes in employee benefits without prior notice.” If fired, Perelman teachers are not eligible for unemployment benefits.
To threaten, coerce and deny them their rights is a terrible way for any organization to treat its employees. It is especially egregious for a Jewish school, dedicated to teaching Jewish values to young children, to do so.
The Perelman Jewish Day School teachers chose union representation because they believe, as I do, that we are stronger as individuals and as a community when employees are treated as full partners in the institution’s success. Even in close-knit school communities, it’s often difficult for teachers to advocate for the resources and services their students need without fear of reprisals. With flimsy employment agreements that guarantee nothing, it is unlikely that teachers will feel they can speak out on behalf of the best interests of students, families or the school.
The Jewish people have a long history of seeking justice for all workers. We find guidance on the proper treatment of our employees in the Torah, Talmud and commentaries.
Jewish law requires us to treat our employees fairly and with respect. The Torah commands people to work as partners in God’s creation. In Deuteronomy, God instructs us: “You shall not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people or one of the sojourners in your land … ” Rabbinic law guiding employer-employee relations establishes the concept that both parties are kinsmen, not adversaries. Leviticus commands: “Thou shalt not rule over him with rigor.”
Our success in America is the direct result of rights won by Jewish labor leaders like Samuel Gompers, the first and longest-serving president of the American Federation of Labor; Sidney Hillman and Bessie Abramowitz of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Clara Lemlich and Fannia Cohn of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and my old mentor, Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers.
As a fellow Jew, teacher and labor leader, I urge the Perelman board to rescind its decision immediately and open a dialogue with teachers to resolve the issues that separate them. Cooperation, rather than conflict, will strengthen Perelman Jewish Day School and the Philadelphia Jewish community and demonstrate kavod (respect), chochmah (wisdom) and tzedek (justice) — traits we seek to instill in our children.
Ted Kirsch is a history teacher and president of AFT Pennsylvania, which represents 35,000 active and retired teachers and school employees. AFTPA is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and of the AFL-CIO.