Is Perelman Jewish Day School the Hobby Lobby of Union-Busting?

Bruce Vail March 28, 2014

The Perelman Jewish Day School in Melrose Park, a suburb of Philadelphia.

A small group of teach­ers in Philadel­phia are find­ing their union rights under attack on ques­tion­able reli­gious grounds, much the same way that women across Amer­i­ca found their right to health­care assault­ed this week in the Supreme Court’s Hob­by Lob­by case.

Some 55 teach­ers at the Perel­man Jew­ish Day School, which has two K‑5 cam­pus­es in the Philadel­phia sub­urbs with some 300 total stu­dents, were stunned March 24 to be noti­fied that the school’s board had decid­ed to cease rec­og­niz­ing their union. The teach­ers were told that the cur­rent union con­tract will be allowed to expire and they will be required to nego­ti­ate indi­vid­ual one-year con­tracts with school admin­is­tra­tors. Nor­mal­ly, revok­ing union recog­ni­tion would be con­sid­ered a bla­tant vio­la­tion of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing law. But board vice pres­i­dent Aaron Frei­wald says the action is jus­ti­fied by a Supreme Court deci­sion. The case he’s like­ly refer­ring to is the obscure 1979 NLRB v. Catholic Bish­ops of Chica­go, in which the Supreme Court found that reli­gious schools are exempt from cer­tain pro­vi­sions of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act.

The teach­ers, some of whom are obser­vant Jews them­selves, are not going to meek­ly allow their union to be dis­solved, says Bar­bara Good­man, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for the AFT Penn­syl­va­nia, the state chap­ter of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers and the union with which the Perel­man Jew­ish Day School Fac­ul­ty Asso­ci­a­tion Local 3578 is affiliated.

Mem­bers held an emer­gency meet­ing March 27, Good­man says, and unan­i­mous­ly passed a res­o­lu­tion to fight for their union. It read:

We cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly reject the terms and con­di­tions in the mate­ri­als that were hand­ed to us, and we autho­rize all of our local, state and nation­al offi­cers to pur­sue all legal means to have this action reversed and to return to the bar­gain­ing table, where we can nego­ti­ate in good faith a con­tract that is good for the stu­dents and the teachers.

Equal­ly offend­ed by the board action is Jesse Bacon, whose daugh­ter is a stu­dent at the exclu­sive pri­vate school, where tuition can be as high as $20,000 a year. Bacon tells In These Times that he’s firm­ly on the side of the teach­ers and regards any claim to reli­gious legit­i­ma­cy for the board’s high-hand­ed action as bogus and offen­sive. This is just rank hypocrisy. … It makes my blood boil,” he says.

Hyp­o­crit­i­cal or not, the teach­ers just may have a real legal fight on their hands, says Dan Kova­lik, who is on the legal staff at the Pitts­burgh head­quar­ters of the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers (USW). The lit­tle-known Catholic Bish­ops deci­sion does allow reli­gious schools to claim exemp­tion from the NLRA, he says, although it is not clear that it would apply to the Perel­man school. The USW is fight­ing a Catholic Bish­ops case right now, he adds, as the union attempts to orga­nize the part-time fac­ul­ty at the Duquesne Uni­ver­si­ty, a Catholic school in the sub­urbs of Pitts­burgh. And there are a num­ber of oth­er cas­es where reli­gious schools have suc­cess­ful­ly used the Catholic Bish­ops defense to fend of union­iza­tion of the fac­ul­ty, he says. Indeed, labor lawyers are close­ly watch­ing a Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board deci­sion right now in a case involv­ing Pacif­ic Luther­an Uni­ver­si­ty, which may clar­i­fy the law.

The claim of reli­gious exemp­tion doesn’t mean much to the AFT’S Good­man. Perel­man School has been union­ized for 38 years. I’m Jew­ish myself and I can tell you for sure that noth­ing about Judaism has changed in the last week to jus­ti­fy” attack­ing the teach­ers union, she says.

Nor does it hold much water with Bacon. He tells In These Times that his great-grand­moth­er became a mem­ber of the Inter­na­tion­al Ladies Gar­ment Work­ers Union while a seam­stress in Philadel­phia a cen­tu­ry ago. There is a proud tra­di­tion in his fam­i­ly of pro­gres­sive Jew­ish union­ism —some were life­time mem­bers of the social­ist-lean­ing orga­ni­za­tion Workman’s Cir­cle — and any attempt to jus­ti­fy union-bust­ing with Judaism is offen­sive, he says. He also notes that the board at the Perel­man school chose to move against the union on the anniver­sary of the Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­to­ry fire, the tragedy that helped cat­alyze the union­iza­tion of Jew­ish work­ers in New York’s gar­ment district.

Penn­syl­va­nia AFT Pres­i­dent Ted Kirsch said the full resources of the union are being mar­shaled to defend the teach­ers. You wouldn’t believe the calls I’ve got­ten from around the coun­try. This is just so against the Jew­ish tra­di­tion that peo­ple can’t believe Perel­man is try­ing to get away this this,” he says.

Frei­wald, a Philadel­phia lawyer, turned down requests from In These Times for a phone inter­view but invit­ed queries by email. He declined to answer most of the e‑mailed ques­tions, but did how­ev­er iden­ti­fy him­self as the chair­man of a spe­cial board task force that rec­om­mend­ed the vote against the union and stat­ed that the vote was unan­i­mous. He pro­vid­ed a press release and a pre­pared FAQ sheet [PDF] as the school’s only pub­lic comment.

This mat­ter explod­ed the same week that the Supreme Court heard argu­ments in the Hob­by Lob­by case, in which an employ­er argued that his reli­gious con­vic­tions against birth con­trol trumped the health­care rights of his work­ers. Bacon sees a clear par­al­lel between the two: That seems like pho­ny reli­gion to me. So does this.”

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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