Philadelphia public school teachers often feel like they’re being bombarded from all sides.
State and municipal governments aren’t providing their schools with the funding they need to stay afloat, teachers say, while a bitter contract stalemate between the school district’s administration and the teachers’ own labor union is dragging into a fourth consecutive year.
Charter schools are further cutting severely into the resources available to public schools, while standardized testing policies have undermined teachers’ professional autonomy, they say. Meanwhile, layoffs, restructuring and attrition have reduced the city’s largest labor union from 20,000 members about a decade ago to 11,500.
This year, a group of working public school teachers and staff members is resolving to reverse the negative trends by mounting a historic challenge to the longtime leadership of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. They call themselves the Caucus of Working Educators and they have designs on all 37 elected positions on the PFT board.
The quadrennial PFT election will begin on Feb. 4 when printed ballots will be mailed to members, who will have a couple of weeks to make their selections and return the ballots.
“It’s an urgent moment. We’re being attacked from all over the place — 440 North Broad (the school district headquarters), Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., and from privateers,” said Yaasiyn Muhammad, a history teacher at Central High and the WE candidate for union vice president.
“We have schools with major (faculty) vacancies and that are missing core subjects,” Muhammad noted.
Amy Roat, an ESOL teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences with 23 years of classroom experience, heads the WE ticket. She’s hoping to unseat incumbent PFT President Jerry Jordan, whose Collective Bargaining Team (CBT) has controlled the union since the early 1980s. Personally, Jordan has been in union leadership for three decades and succeeded Ted Kirsch as president in 2007. Kirsh had held the office for 17 years before then.
In addition to the top office, WE will contend for four vice president positions, treasurer, recording secretary, associate secretary and legislative representative, along with 28 at-large board positions. The union will also elect 100 delegates for the American Federation of Teachers convention in July in Minneapolis.
“There hasn’t been a full caucus doing what we’re doing since the 1980s,” Roat said.
Roat said that the CBT has yet to notify members of its ticket beyond Jordan, a fact that WE leaders cite as one example of why a change is needed. They say they want to change the profile of the PFT from a top-down management style to a ground-up model. They call it a focus on social justice.
“It’s definitely a grassroots model where members set the agenda and are active in bringing that agenda to fruition. It’s the opposite of top-down,” Roat said. “One person can’t have all of the good ideas for 11,000 PFT members.”
“Transparency in the union, sharing information, that’s the democracy aspect of it all,” added Ismael Jimenez, a history teacher at Kensington CAPA and union vice president for high schools candidate. “I don’t know who I’m running against.”
To facilitate the grassroots model, the WE caucus has been hosting rank-and-file meetings and fundraisers around the city in recent weeks, a so-called “listening campaign,” including an event late last month in Fox Chase at the American Legion Post 366. Dozens of PFT members and backers attended.
In addition to teachers, the union represents secretaries, paraprofessionals, nurses, counselors, psychologists, social workers, non-teaching assistants and other support staff. Eileen Duffy, a nurse at Academy at Palumbo and Stearne Elementary, is the WE candidate for recording secretary.
“One thing I’m noticing is everyone in the room is filling out these commitment cards,” Muhammad said.
“We have a few hundred core supporters and (CBT) has a few hundred core supporters and there are ten thousand in the middle,” Roat said.
She and her allies don’t think their union has been making best use of its greatest asset, its numbers, in advocating for teachers and public schools. While they vow to continue the PFT’s ongoing legal fight against the School Reform Commission over contract issues (including the SRC’s effort to invalidate the terms of the contract that expired three years ago), they think more can be done by mobilizing members to disseminate information publicly and as a political force.
“The current union leadership isn’t doing enough to bring issues to the public’s attention,” said George Bezanis, a history teacher at Central High and candidate for union legislative representative.
“We should be mobilizing our parents,” agreed Muhammad.
The WE caucus has taken notice of the growing influence of other labor unions in city and state politics, such as John Dougherty’s Local 98 electricians and Philadelphia’s police union, led by John McNesby. The PFT is the second-largest union in Pennsylvania by members, they claim.
WE leaders were glad to see state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams lose the Philadelphia Democratic mayoral primary to Jim Kenney last May. Williams’ campaign had been funded largely by charter school interests, while Kenney garnered major support from building trades and municipal unions. With a strong, unified political effort, the PFT could help elect policy-makers who will advocate for more public school funding, a shift away from standardized testing and a fair teachers’ contract.
“It’s one thing to get them into office, we also have to hold them accountable,” Jimenez said.
“We think waking up the sleeping giant that is the PFT membership is the way to do that,” Muhammad said. ••