PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers ended its 50-day strike Tuesday night and agreed to go back to their classrooms, averting a general strike by organized labor on Wednesday.
PFT President John Murray announced his 22,000-member union had agreed to comply with a judge's order that they return to work. Earlier, the Philadelphia School District agreed to rehire 3,500 laid-off teachers and aides, also mandated by the Commonwealth Court judge.
Following the announcement, Murray and school district officials immediately entered negotiations for a new contract to replace the 2-year agreement reached in 1980 that school district officials said they could not afford to comply with because of a $235 million deficit.
'We are teachers and our primary concern is the children,' said Joe Pizzo, a member of the PFT executive board. 'We brought back the programs we said the children needed. We put the children first. We won.'
Pizzo said the ultimate concern of the PFT was what the public school students were losing 'while the other side played politics.
Judge James Crumlish's ruling directed the district and the PFT to operate under the terms of the contract that was effective until June 1981.
The general strike was called by the 250,000-member Philadelphia Council of the AFL-CIO and received the support of the national AFL-CIO earlier Tuesday.
Crumlish's ruling said:
'We order the teachers, in the best interest of the school children and all parties involved, to return to work under the terms of their 1980-81 contract, the last valid agreement between the parties.'
He held that the PFT and Philadelphia School Board never entered into a binding collective bargaining agreement for the 1981-82 school year. It ordered the union and school board to begin bargaining and mediation procedures that apply to an expired contract.
Crumlish said the strike is illegal since it occurred with collective bargaining procedures pending, but is illegal 'only from this date forward.'
'The Board and PFT labored under a mistake of fact which went to the very heart of their contract -- both mistakenly believed that from whatever source, the revenues necessary to fulfill the contract terms would be forthcoming,' the court said.
As part of the general strike plans, thousands of the striking teachers had planned to march on City Hall Wednesday.
Public officials said the city would operate as usual. Some offices, anticipating major disruptions in mass transit, planned car pools for employes.
Hospital officials said they were working out contingency plans in the event their employes supported the walkout.
Police and fire officials said all personnel scheduled for duty would continue to work but that some off-duty workers might participate.