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 / STAR 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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