"11,000 smart, committed teachers can change the world”: A group of working Philadelphia teachers is looking to upset the status quo of the teachers union

Up for a vote: "Social justice unionism," in which every teachers union member participates in educational change

Published January 24, 2016 1:00PM (EST)

Amy Roat   (AP/Matt Rourke)
Amy Roat (AP/Matt Rourke)

“I am sick of austerity,” Yaasiyn Muhammad, a teacher of African-American history at Central High School told a crowd of around 150 teachers gathered on a November Saturday in the Old First Reformed church. “I am sick and tired of cuts that disproportionately affect black and brown children. Status quo unionism has put the PFT to sleep.”  

“Stand up if you’ve been affected by forced transfers, layoffs and school closures!” said Amy Roat, an English language learner teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences. About half the room stood.

Roat and Muhammad are running for president and vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) in the union’s upcoming leadership election, which will take place by mail-in ballot Feb. 4-23. PFT elections happen every four years, though they are usually non-events and many teachers report being unaware there are elections at all; the current leadership team, the collective bargaining or “CB team,” which is headed up by Jerry Jordan, has been steering the ship since the 1980s. Roat is part of a slate of nine candidates, all of whom come out of the Caucus of Working Educators (WE), the first group to seriously challenge the leadership of the PFT in three decades.

“I teach at a school that doesn’t have enough staff to take care of our kids,” Roat continued. “Stand up if you do too.” At Roat’s words, nearly the entire room stood and looked at one another. “We sure have a lot to be angry about. And the only thing that’s gonna change it are the people in this room.”

But how, one might ask? Hasn’t the PFT already been fighting tooth and nail to address these problems and fight for a new teachers contract?

The solution WE is offering is part of a national movement that seeks to drastically change the modus operandi of the teachers union from one in which union members pay dues and trust that the big decisions are being made by the leaders and lawyers at the bargaining table to one in which every single teachers union member actively participates in grass-roots educational change. This new approach, called social justice unionism, comes with a track record of success in cities like Chicago, St. Paul, Seattle and Portland.

“Strategies of backroom deals and political negotiations--the failed model of ‘business unionism,’ which still dominates the labor movement today--have left rank-and-file members demobilized and union leaders without much leverage,” writes New York City educator and writer Megan Behrent. “From this standpoint, building a strong union movement requires broadening the fight beyond the specific demands of one union to class-wide or ‘social justice’ demands-- which include traditional ‘bread and butter’ issues, but are not limited to them.”

“Our future depends on redefining unionism from a narrow trade union model, focused almost exclusively on protecting union members, to a broader vision that sees the future of unionized workers tied directly to the interests of the entire working class and the communities, particularly communities of color, in which we live and work,” agrees Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association. “[This] requires confronting racist attitudes and past practices that have marginalized people of color both inside and outside unions. It also means overcoming old habits and stagnant organizational structures that weigh down efforts to expand internal democracy and member engagement.”

In the past, teachers unions have struggled with what issues should matter to the union: workplace issues only, like class sizes and teachers' compensation? What place do activism and more macro questions of race and class have in negotiations? Social justice unionism believes that these two kinds are inextricably intertwined--in order to gain victories in the workplace for teachers when resources are so scarce, teachers unions must build alliances and solidarity with the students, parents and other members of the community that the school district serves.

What does this look like in practice? In 2010 in Chicago, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) ousted the previous leadership, who had been in charge for 38 years. The new leadership focused on empowering new members, listening to their concerns, and building relationships with community members and students. When the Chicago Board of Education closed 17 schools in 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union mobilized a strike, which employed a combination of direct action--teachers picketed schools, marched through the financial district, and held rallies in the communities (mainly of color) most affected by the school closings--and traditional bargaining techniques. “Besides resolving issues around fair pay and health care, the conclusion of the CTU strike brought major victories to the local community,” writes Sean Kitchen for Raging Chicken Press. “The teachers were able to get more funding for music and art education programs, school supplies, textbooks, shorter school hours and mayoral accountability.” In St. Paul, a similar dual approach was able to avoid a strike and still lead to “a landmark contract” that included “smaller class sizes, access to preschool, educating the whole child, family engagement, placing teaching before testing, wage and benefit increases, culturally relevant education, and high-quality professional development for teachers.”

Back in Philadelphia, the WE caucus is fighting for leadership of the PFT with the hope of drawing on these successful tactics. The current leadership of the PFT does not mobilize teachers to attend or protest at the monthly meetings of the School Reform Commission, but WE does--members have made fliers and social media events to make sure educators know about the meetings and show up; about 50 teachers have come to each SRC meeting since. Furthermore, WE lends its support to other direction actions happening around the city.

In November, parents and community members of the Samuel Huey school in West Philadelphia organized a protest at a busy intersection to show they stand against Huey’s proposed conversion from a district school to a charter school. WE members came out to support them. Students, parents and WE members chanted, “Our voice, our choice,” at passing cars.

This is the kind of solution WE is offering: community engagement from the bottom up. “You can’t just close a school without parents backing that decision,” says Carlos Frederick, a history teacher at Woodrow Wilson, who stressed  that a big part of WE’s vision is to build communication with the community from which its students are drawn, which means parents. “If parents really mobilize on behalf of their school, it is much harder.”

“Some people think that WE is a young upstart,” says Kelley Collings, who has been a district teacher for over 15 years, and WE’s candidate for special vice president of middle schools. “No.”

Collings and many others at the conference had been a part of a group called the Teacher Action Group, which as early as 2009 was organizing local campaigns to try to get the PFT to listen to the opinions of teachers and parents. They would call their union reps and never get called back. They held meetings to try to push the PFT leadership on some of the issues they cared about—wraparound services, better professional development, issuing statements or holding teach-ins about social justice issues, and union representative responsiveness—but at each meeting, the PFT leadership would say, “We can’t do that.” Collings characterizes it as bureaucratic pushback. “Every time we walked out of a meeting we felt deflated,” she says. “Every meeting for five years. Do you know what Einstein’s definition of insanity is? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

In a Teacher Action Group meeting on March 12, 2014, 27 teachers had had enough. They decided if the structure in place was not responsive to their concerns and not open to their solutions, they had no choice but to build their own structure. “The caucus was born two weeks later, and we’ve been organizing ever since.”

Then at the April 2015 membership meeting, WE members were asking, how do we want to participate in the PFT elections? They realized they wanted to challenge the current leadership but didn’t know how. There were problems, everyone could see that. But what were the solutions? To find out, WE members embarked on a listening campaign for two months starting on Sept. 9, in which they visited more than 100 Philadelphia District schools and asked teachers there, What do you care about? What do you need to do your job? What can the union be doing to help you do your job? The feedback from this listening tour directly shaped WE’s platform.

The platform emphasizes fighting for a strong contract that would mandate lower class sizes and wraparound services for students, becoming a more democratic and community-based organization that would heavily involve district parents, becoming a union that is more transparent and responsive to its members, fighting for equal funding for the students of Philadelphia who are disproportionately poor and of color, and “reclaiming their status as professionals”—decreasing the emphasis placed on standardized testing, reforming site selection practices so teachers are not simply force transferred to where there is an opening, and making professional development days meaningful time in which teachers teach other teachers or collaborate on lessons as opposed to passively viewing a PowerPoint.

WE says the difference between them and the long-standing leadership of the PFT is fundamental, a matter of mind-set about what produces long-lasting changes--they call theirs “deep organizing” rather than the “shallow mobilizing” they feel the CB team has offered in the past.

“Sure, the CB team is opposed to forced transfers, layoffs and school closures too,” Roat says. “What we're saying is that we would approach these issues in a different way. The CB team does not activate the power of its members.”

Luke Zeller, now an English teacher at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, agrees. “We would like the union to be more proactive: What is the deeper solution that would make forced transfers less necessary?” Zeller asks. The first time he was force-transferred, he had been at Overbrook High School three years. Then one Thursday, he got an email. He had two days to say goodbye to his students. “My students came in on Monday morning, and I was just gone,” Zeller says. Forced transfers negatively impact teachers, but more importantly students, Zeller says, noting that charter schools exacerbate the problem by making the district student population fluctuate--an issue WE is actively tackling with actions like the one at Huey. He says WE would address this problem by thinking about school hiring and firing as more than numbers and staffing. “The union has to represent something bigger; it has to support teachers to care about their particular school.”

Roat employs the metaphor of a quiver filled with arrows, 11,000 arrows to be exact, one for each person the PFT can count as a resource. The CB team, she says, uses perhaps 10 arrows--a few lawyers, several politicians, perhaps a few powerful teachers. WE would like to use all 11,000 arrows to fight this battle.

“There is no activism among our membership,” says Roat. “It's because of the leadership style of the CB team. They say, ‘hold tight, we'll tell you when it's time,’ or ‘relax, the CB team has got it, go home.’ The CB team makes teachers feel disempowered rather than engaged. When our contract was threatened, a couple thousand people came out. Every single member should have been out there.”

Since the spring of 2014, WE has been hard at work. Collings was one of the “Feltonville six,” a group of largely WE teachers who built a grass-roots movement at Feltonville that resulted in one in five parents electing to opt their child out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA)--a citywide test that measures a school’s performance and that can be used to determine the funding a school will receive--and Superintendent Hite agreeing that from now on the district must give all parents information about how to opt out their children.  

WE has also been advocating for reclaiming professional development, letting teachers teach other teachers what works and creating a culture of high expectations. “We need to treat ourselves like the intellectuals we are.” They have formed a racial justice committee that works specifically to fight against policies that keep students of color in Philadelphia--who make up the vast majority of public school students--from academic success.

Vice presidential candidate Muhammad says that this attention to social justice is what is most exciting to him about WE’s solution. “We need to address the fact that most of our students are black, brown and poor, in the classroom. We need to be able to talk about these realities and connect how the issues our students face in their lives affect their learning and affect us as teachers.” According to Muhammad, the current PFT leadership does not recognize these factors as obstacles that stand in the way of Philly students receiving an education equal to that of children in private or suburban schools. “The current PFT is not doing enough for racial justice.”

In addition to penning a “Racial Justice Statement” that guides their work, WE members have attended marches, rallies and meetings in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial and Economic Justice. WE also routinely organizes workshops for its members on dismantling racism on a personal and school-based level, as well as summer book clubs in which teachers read and discuss texts that focus on the impacts and realities of racism in the education system and how to dismantle it.

WE has also won support from school nurses and other staff. Eileen Duffey is a school nurse who is also running on WE’s slate for the office of recording secretary. Before the Doomsday layoffs, she used to work at Meredith Elementary serving about 550 students. Now she works three days a week at Palumbo and two at Sterne, serving a total of 1,400-1,500 students. “With WE, I can see a way forward,” she says. “WE is offering a vision and a plan. No one else in education reform, no one in the big union leadership now is really standing in the classrooms.” She gestures around the room for me to look at the teachers—black, white, young, old, all genders, here on a Saturday after teaching all week. “These are the most esteemed people in Philadelphia right here when it comes to thinking and talking about solutions to these problems,” she says. “They are here in this room.”

Roat emphasizes that the core of WE’s platform is about empowering teachers to make the changes they want to see at their schools rather than WE imposing a unified vision on every school. “In my building, we say, that’s not working, what are we gonna do about it? Our whole building has become engaged. What if we could do that on a citywide scale? It’s a massive culture shift.”

At Feltonville, Roat would like to see a successful home and school association get off the  ground. She would like to bring back the parent liaison—a staff person working directly for the principal whose job it was to connect the school and the community—as a full-time position. She would like teachers to foster and support initiatives that parents are passionate about, as they did with opt-out. She would like teachers to hold forums for parents and the community, where they would present diverse views on important educational issues. “Let teachers do what they do best--which is teach. We really, really believe that education is the key to changing a lot of these issues. People don't know what's going on, what's working, what to fight against.”

Reached at the headquarters of the PFT, Jerry Jordan said that the current structure of the union in which representatives--responsible for around 35 schools each--respond to member grievances is working well. As for WE’s proposed solutions to top down leadership, he says, “You’re able to do that for some things but not for all things, which is why we have an executive board. It’s very difficult to get people even within a single school to sit down and have a meeting after the working day, so [WE] would have to be much more specific about how they plan to get member input on such a massive scale.”

Jordan stresses that he has been active in working for racial justice in his work as vice chair of the AFT standing committee on civil and human rights and the AFT task force on No Child Left Behind, a set of policies he opposes. “I went to a meeting here in the city about Black Lives Matter after that youngster in Florida was killed,” he says. “I laid down on the cold hard ground.”

When asked what new initiatives he would have on the horizon if elected and why teachers should vote for him, Jordan responded that he offers experience, a demonstrated ability to get people who support education into office (like Mayor Kenney), and has put programs into place like more teacher training and a peer assistance and review program, wherein veteran teachers mentor new teachers.

WE has other skeptics. The main criticism lobbed at WE is that they are dividing the union, attacking it from within and thus weakening its power against the School Reform Commission. “I don't agree with everything the PFT tells us and I do question some of the info given, but I WOULD NEVER ever air what I think is our ‘dirty laundry’ in a public forum,” wrote a commenter on a September story on WE published in The Notebook. “Solidarity is what has gotten unions the gains accomplished in the past, and solidarity is what will get it the eventual gains we will accomplish. United we stand. Divided we fall.” They also hear that they are too young and too white, and are attacking Jerry Jordan because he is a powerful black leader.  

To the first point, a small WE flier addresses it head on: “We are proud PFT members, and the Caucus of Working Educators is a way to support our union and its leadership. We believe that a union’s strength lies in its members, and the caucus seeks to increase that strength by empowering the rank and file.” Four of the nine members of WE’s slate are people of color, and if their conference is any indication, its membership has deep support from black, Latino and white teachers. Finally, they hear apathy: The union and the school district are doomed anyway, so why bother?

But the key difference may simply be that WE’s leadership would be grounded in on-the-ground experience, whereas Jordan brings organizational experience but may be out of touch with the changing realities of what teachers in classrooms need.

One of the things that helps put WE in touch with the concerns of a wide array of teachers is the fact that many of WE's slate are members of different teacher networks, says Ami Patel Hopkins of the Philadelphia Education Fund. Teacher networks are groups of teachers with a shared purpose, content area or goal that helps their members get support, become better teachers, share knowledge, and troubleshoot problems. In addition to the Teacher Action Group network from which the caucus was born, WE slate candidates are members of the networks the Philadelphia Writing Project, Teachers Lead Philly, Need in Deed; each slate candidate then brings the concerns of a wide array of teachers from many parts of the district.

“11,000 smart, committed teachers can change the world,” Roat says. “They can certainly change Philadelphia.”

By Emma Eisenberg

Emma Copley Eisenberg writes about gender, queerness, Appalachia and crime for places like The New Republic, Granta, Slate, Salon, The Marshall Project, and others. Say hello @EmmaEisenberg or at emmacopleyeisenberg.com.

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Caucus Of Working Educators Education Philadelphia Philadelphia Federation Of Teachers