Jewish Day School wants to end teachers union

Lisa Richman, union president, says strains are evident at the school.
Lisa Richman, union president, says strains are evident at the school. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 09, 2014

When teachers at the Perelman Jewish Day School in Montgomery County were told in March that the private religious academy would no longer recognize their 60-member union, they filed a federal labor complaint - and then they went to a higher authority.

With the clock ticking toward the end of their existing contract, Perelman teachers and their supporters are hoping a last-ditch appeal to Jewish religious law - specifically a 2008 finding by the religion's Conservative movement that affiliated institutions can't interfere with labor organizing - can save their union.

"It's really, really clear from Jewish law that you are not allowed to engage in any union busting," insisted Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who is based in New York and authored the legal opinion, or teshuvah, for the Conservative movement's law committee. It stated that affiliates "may not interfere in any way with organizing drives" and must pay workers a living wage.

The Talmudic debate over ancient spiritual law adds a novel twist to a labor dispute that has roiled the 58-year-old Jewish day school and raised tensions among teachers, administrators, and parents, some of whom have openly sided with the union. The school has 300 students in kindergarten through fifth grade on campuses in Wynnewood and Melrose Park.

Lisa Richman, union president and a teacher at Perelman, said strains over the labor dispute have escalated to the point that board members she has known for years will barely acknowledge her. With one, she said, "I came out for car-pool duty, she took her kid, took one look at me, and went the other way. It hurts."

Perelman board members have said very little publicly since a March 24 letter to parents and teachers saying the school would no longer recognize the union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, and that it would ask all faculty to sign one-year agreements surrendering their tenure and seniority rights.

Board member Aaron Freiwald, a lawyer, said he believes Perelman is the only independent private elementary school in Pennsylvania where teachers can unionize and that it's time for change. He said that every teacher has been offered the opportunity to return in 2014-15 and that opponents of the move are a small but vocal minority.

"It's really pretty simple actually: Our responsibility is to do everything we can to provide the best education possible and to put the interest of our children first and foremost," Freiwald said. "Having flexibility in managing the faculty is something we felt was critical to that mission."

Blindsided

Richman said teachers who had been expecting to negotiate a new contract - with their current deal expiring on Aug. 31 - were blindsided by the March letter. After almost four decades at the school, "with the stroke of a pen I lost my protection," she said. "I can lose my job with no unemployment."

Longtime members of the community at Perelman - once called Solomon Schechter Day School and now named for business tycoon and philanthropist Raymond Perelman and his wife, Ruth - say they are shocked and disappointed at the way the labor battle has divided the school, where board members and teachers send their children to class together. Former teacher and parent Rita Ross of Wynnewood described the situation at Perelman as "appalling. It's an example of the strong against the weak, the rich against the poor."

Another supporter, Burton Caine, a Temple University law professor and former president of the Solomon Schechter board, said the union has been good for the school and that the board's actions were "terrible."

"The dignity of the teachers is really the heart of the school," he said.

In early April, the union filed a complaint with the federal National Labor Relations Board, accusing the school's directors of unfair labor practices for yanking its recognition.

But the school is expected to argue that a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling - the case of NLRB v. Catholic Bishops of Chicago - exempts religious schools from certain provisions of the National Labor Relations Act. That case established a precedent that has been cited by other religious-based schools and universities to prevent unions.

With the secular legal channels in doubt, teachers and their allies have looked to other avenues. More than 1,000 people have signed a petition at the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org asking the school's directors to follow the pro-union interpretation of religious law, and union leaders set up an informational picket outside a "model seder" at the Adath Israel synagogue in Merion before Passover.

Freiwald called the petition "meaningless," saying that it had been signed by people who have nothing to do with the school.

Labor activism

But perhaps the most contentious debate is over labor's place in Jewish religious law.

Rabbi Neil Cooper, senior rabbi of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood - which has the largest contingent of students, about 60, in the school - disagreed with the interpretation put forth by Jacobs. He said that while Conservative Judaism has always been supportive of labor, "to say that they're acting in a way that isn't as Jewish as somebody else is irresponsible," he said.

Union supporters counter with the long tradition of Jewish labor activism rooted in efforts such as the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and the aftermath of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

"If it wasn't in opposition to the basic tenets, then why was it done so secretively?" said Lynne Fox, chairwoman of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Jewish Labor Committee. "Why didn't they call the teachers and union and say: 'Here's what we've got to do. Let's talk this through?' "

Freiwald said he did exchange e-mails with an AFT official in December to say the board wanted to discuss seniority and tenure but was told it was a "non-starter." He said teachers were offered an average 3 percent raise.

Rabbi Jacobs, who is executive director of T'ruah, formerly the American branch of Rabbis for Human Rights, said: "Jewish law is really, really clear on this. The idea is that there is no other way to guarantee that workers will have the right to protection without giving them collective bargaining power with a union."

The board's Freiwald dismissed Jacobs' opinion.

"She is a social activist," he said. "I respect that, but she is not the pope speaking for the masses of Catholics. She's one person."


kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232 @kathyboccella

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