Taking a stand

The Caucus of Work­ing Edu­cat­ors mounts a his­tor­ic chal­lenge to the long­time lead­er­ship of the Phil­adelphia Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers. 

  • Working toward change: A group of working public school teachers and staff members has formed the Caucus of Working Educators and has designs on all 37 elected positions on the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers board. The group recently held a fundraiser at the American Legion Post 366 in Fox Chase. MARIA S. YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

  • MARIA S. YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

  • MARIA S. YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

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. ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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