"You don't need to look past the Neshaminy School District to see how abusive government-sector unions have become," said Jennifer Stefano, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of Americans for Prosperity.
"I'm not against unions, I'm against bullies, and teachers' unions have become the biggest bullies on the block," Stefano said Thursday. "They can strike whenever they want and can force teachers to pay dues, even those who don't want to."
Union leaders say that they are entitled to collective bargaining and that they need the right to strike to ensure that employers bargain in good faith.
"Instead of opposition to public-service unions, I see growing support for the issues we care about, such as adequate funding for public education," said Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. The PSEA represents teachers in 483 of the state's 500 school districts, but not at Neshaminy.
Unions representing teachers, police, firefighters, and other public employees have come under fire for salaries and benefits that strain government budgets and tax residents.
"There definitely is a strong antiunion sentiment," State Rep. Frank Farry (R., Bucks) said of the Neshaminy community. "There's a frustration for taxpayers who are out of work or paying increased health-care contributions."
Stefano leads the state chapter of a national group that promotes limited government and lower taxes. She helped mobilize conservatives in Wisconsin leading up to Gov. Scott Walker's victory last week in a recall election.
Supporters called Walker's win an endorsement of his policies limiting collective bargaining for most state workers. Opponents said he bought the election, outspending his opponent by more than 6-1.
One change that hit public unions hard was the termination of dues collection by school districts and the government. Membership in Wisconsin's second-largest public union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, fell 54 percent, from 62,818 in March 2011 to 28,745 in February, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In San Diego and San Jose, Calif., voters approved ballot measures to trim retirement benefits for city workers. The mayor of Chicago rescinded a teachers' raise last year and is seeking to increase their work day.
And Gov. Christie made national headlines last year when he cut public-employee benefits and teachers' pensions.
In Neshaminy, members of the Neshaminy Federation of Teachers have been working without a raise for four years, under terms of a contract that the district says it can no longer afford. They get free health care and a $27,500 early retirement incentive after 10 years of service that comes with free health care for the teacher and his or her family.
Salaries range from $42,552 to $95,923, with an average of $77,353. That does not include pay for added responsibilities, certifications, and doctorates that boost the top pay to $109,462, according to the district.
The salaries and benefits of many taxpayers pale in comparison. The district covers two townships and four boroughs, with homes from 60-year-old Levittowners to modern McMansions. The median household income ranges from $49,181 in Penndel and $64,018 in Hulmeville to $78,861 in Middletown Township and $93,393 in Langhorne Manor, according to 2006-10 census figures.
"I don't have a problem with teachers having the right to collective bargaining," school board member Anthony Sposato said before heading to Harrisburg for the rally against teachers' strikes. "But this particular union has gone too far. It's not like they're working under adverse conditions, like coal miners. They're not oppressed. They can make $100,000 after 10 years."
On the picket line, union member and high school teacher Cara DeLorenzo countered, "People say our salaries are too high - I don't understand what salaries should be. We're teaching the leaders of our future. They don't realize what they're talking about; they haven't walked in our shoes."
Frustration with the contract impasse - the longest current stalemate in the state - led the union to go on strike for eight days in January and seven days this month. Thirty-seven states, including New Jersey, ban teachers' strikes.
"Striking - that's the law," DeLorenzo said. "We've tried everything possible. We keep giving concessions, they aren't budging. Yet we're the ones who are greedy - that logic doesn't add up to me."
The strikes and other job actions have angered parents, who accuse the teachers of using their children as pawns in the stalemated negotiations.
"Adults should be able to negotiate a contract without bringing children into it," said Lisa Begley, who has had three children graduate from Neshaminy. "I'm not denying teachers a contract, benefits, or the right to negotiate a contract, but don't affect students by instituting work-to-contract and striking."
The job actions prompted Gail Thibodeau to pull her eighth grade son out of the district for private school "because he was getting too far behind."
"I understand that 30, 40 years ago, teachers were not compensated well enough, but that has changed," she said. "I don't think that any professionals - and the teachers have bachelor's and master's degrees - should get collective bargaining.
"They should get merit-based pay increases. Do a good job and they should be paid well. Neshaminy teachers are paid well."
Teachers have been blasted at school board meetings, and had eggs and curses hurled at them on the picket lines for their contract offers and job actions.
"The teachers have been vilified, and I don't think that's proper," Farry said. "It's OK to criticize the union's tactics, but not teachers individually or collectively.
"A lot of teachers have told me they don't agree with the union's tactics," Farry said. If teachers' strikes were banned, "they wouldn't be put in that position."
Farry said he supports House Bill 1369 "not as an attack on unions, but for children. It aims to eliminate long impasses by requiring regular negotiating sessions, publicized contract proposals and town meetings "so the public would find out if one side is being stubborn."
He conceded that "there is not much will" in the legislature to advance the bill, because strikes have been limited since Act 88 became law in 1982, and even rarer in these tough economic times. Teachers in nearby districts have recently agreed to pay cuts or salary freezes.
Now that Stefano is back from Wisconsin, she is setting her sights on teachers' and other public-sector unions in Pennsylvania. One of her priorities is eliminating teachers' rights to strike and engage in collective bargaining.
"I'm a mother," Stefano said. "It's disheartening that any mother has to go up against a machine like government-sector unions."
Contact Bill Reed at 215-801-2964 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @breedbucks. Read his blog, "BucksInq," at www.philly.com/bucksinq.