Wildcats attacking Rochester schools

by Ken Girardin |  | NY Torch

UPDATED 3/6/2020: A splinter group of Rochester teachers reportedly has called off plans to call a wildcat strike today—but the response from the school district, the established teachers’ union and state public-sector labor regulators could decide whether other New York districts face similar threats in the future.

The Rochester Organization of Rank and File Educators (RORE) has complained about the amount of money the city appropriates for the school district, the amount of money that’s gone to charter schools, and the level of state aid. Showcasing its militancy with a raised-fist logo (above left), RORE reportedly “has about 30 teachers on its steering committees and about 1,200 in a Facebook group restricted to union members,” in a district that employs about 2,500 teachers.

Rochester teachers—whose base pay ranges from $46,260 to $142,990 a year, well above national norms—have received raises totaling 7.4 percent raises over the past two years. However, the district also is grappling with a budget crisis after overspending by about $30 million in 2018-19.

RORE’s demands included a “moratorium on charter school expansion” and the reinstatement of district employees laid off midyear amid the district’s budget crisis. They’ve proposed a one-day strike to dramatize their demands—which would violate state law explicitly prohibiting public-sector strikes. Judging from a statement issued last month, RORE evidently was emboldened by strikes in other states:

“We understand the potential consequences, but we’ve seen the wave of successful strikes around the country, in states with similar laws as us making it ‘illegal’ for public employees to strike, and we can’t continue to let fear paralyze us … What else do we have now but to withhold our labor?”

The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle’s education writer tweeted this morning that RORE members voted last night to back off the strike threat—which is not publicly sanctioned by the Rochester Teachers Association (RTA)—and would “instead be at work wearing red today to show support or more state funding.”

Under Section 210 of the Taylor Law, the Rochester school board has the power not just to dock the pay of any wildcat strikers, but to fire them from their jobs. The board must make clear, in advance, that this is what will happen—or it will invite more disruptive wildcat strikes in the future. So far, however, at least one board member has issued a statement sympathetic to the threatened walkout.

No New York public-sector union has formally gone on strike since 2013, the result of years of strict enforcement of the ban on strikes. The state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), which regulates public-sector collective bargaining for most New York public employees, has penalized unions for condoning or encouraging strikes, even in cases where the union did not officially organize the walkout.

Most recently, sixteen Buffalo teachers at one school had their pay docked after calling in sick on one day in March 2018. An administrative law judge also suspended the automatic paycheck dues-deduction privileges of the Buffalo Teachers Federation for two months for every member in the school after finding that a union officer had “made no effort to try to discourage” the sick-out.

The Rochester Teachers Association appears to be taking steps to avoid a similar fate. RTA president Adam Urbanski wrote members on February 23:

As you may have already heard, last Friday a Facebook group called Rochester Organization of Rank and File Educators (RORE), that includes some RTA members, called for a one-day teacher strike on March 6th. A really bad idea. Like you, RTA officers had no prior indication that they would do this and we only learned about it afterwards through the media. I want you to know that RTA does not support this reckless and negligent proposal. (emphasis his)

But the union also issued a statement earlier this week that sends mixed signals about striking in general:

“The RTA Representative Assembly does not endorse nor support a wildcat strike on March 6, 2020 or on any other date without prior recommendation from the RTA Representative Assembly and without a vote of the full RTA membership.”

The RTA’s Facebook page has featured posts about teacher strikes in other states. In 2018, the union encouraged members to “wear red tomorrow to support Oklahoma and Arizona teachers”—amid illegal teacher strikes in those states, where teachers protested salary levels far below the upstate New York norm.

And Urbanski’s February 23 note still kept the door open to future—also illegal—strikes:

This does not mean that we do not believe in the right of workers to withhold their labor. We do. But such a serious collective action must be made with you, not for you. Our process requires that the RTA Representative Assembly, our union’s only policy-making body, must first recommend it to our members. And then, the overwhelming majority of the entire RTA membership must vote to give or not to give the RTA the authorization to call a strike. We are not at that point now. And if we ever are, it would still be wrong for RORE or anyone else to do an end-run on your duly elected union and to substitute their judgement for yours.

Translation: strikes aren’t always inappropriate, especially not if the union brass calls one.

If the RTA really wants to distance itself from the illegal strike threat, it should make clear it won’t represent teachers in termination or disciplinary proceedings related to the strike—and it should once and for all renounce any illegal work actions. As much as the union has publicly cast this as a wildcat strike, it would still be appropriate for the district to ask PERB to investigate RTA’s role.

Absent a determined response, New Yorkers risk finding out that progressive activists have almost as much enthusiasm for closing schools as running them.

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- Ken Girardin is the Policy Analyst at the Empire Center for Public Policy.