A labor union battle raging at a Philadelphia Jewish day school has highlighted the scarcity of collective bargaining in the Jewish education system and the use of religious exemptions to ban union contracts.
Perelman Jewish Day School, with 300 kindergarten to fifth-grade students on two Philadelphia-area campuses, announced on March 24 its decision to unilaterally discontinue union contracts with its 55 teachers. The teachers were offered a nonunion contract for the next year. Parents were told the school board believes that “administrators at nonunion independent schools are better able to directly and sensitively manage their faculty.”
The move was met with a harsh rejection from the American Federation of Teachers, the teachers union, which has vowed to fight the decision. But it also puts Perelman in line with most other Jewish schools across the country that are out of bounds for union organizers. As private schools, Jewish educational institutions are not compelled to allow organized labor and most have chosen not to do so. As religious institutions, they are free of many federal labor requirements.
It is a debate that has pitted Jewish labor organizers, who argued that actions such as that taken by Perelman violate “years of Jewish law and tradition,” against Jewish parents, who believe that greater power for school administrators would help promote the Jewish value of learning.
The union contracts have been in place for 38 years. The Perelman school board made its decision without consulting the teachers or their union. Aaron Freiwald, a member of the school board, told the Forward that the board had “preliminary exchanges” with the union last fall, but the union made clear that it “would not negotiate if tenure and seniority were on the table.” As a result, the school decided not to renew the union contract, which expires in the summer.
In an emergency meeting held on school grounds March 27, teachers and union representatives strongly rejected the board’s move, vowing to fight it in order to restore collective bargaining rights. “The actions of this board of directors are immoral,” said Ted Kirsch, president of AFT Pennsylvania, in a statement that also accused the school board of plotting behind their faculty’s back. “The board’s entire rollout this week was designed to pressure, manipulate and intimidate faculty into signing agreements that aren’t in their best interests or in the best interests? of the school or students.”
The dispute has touched on not only the fairness of dropping union representation, but also on the move’s legality, its practical ramifications and its compliance with Jewish values.