A threat to all teachers and all unions

October 15, 2014

Lauren Fleer reports from Philadelphia on a new attempt to break the teachers' union.

PHILADELPHIA'S SCHOOL Reform Commission (SRC), a state-controlled body, unilaterally terminated the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) October 6, in a meeting lasting only 17 minutes.

Announced just hours before it began, the surprise meeting excluded teachers, students, parents and the community from weighing in on the decision. This bombshell shocked educators nationwide, even those who expected as much from the SRC, given its 14-year history of neoliberal restructuring of the city's public schools.

The School District of Philadelphia (SPD) now plans to stop payments to the PFT Health and Welfare Fund and take over administration of health care benefits. Beginning December 15, the SPD will charge members between 10 and 13 percent of their health insurance premiums, which were previously covered by the district in full. Prescription, dental and vision benefits for retirees will be ended altogether.

School district officials expect the cuts to produce $54 million this year and $70 million annually thereafter, which they say will be used to augment school budgets. Two days after the stunning announcement, the district already started spending the anticipated savings with a $15 million payout to schools.

Students in Philadelphia march during their solidarity strike to defend teachers
Students in Philadelphia march during their solidarity strike to defend teachers (Cy Wolfe)

The teachers' union has been locked in negotiations with the SRC for 21 months, while its 15,000 members have continued to work under the terms of the expired contract.

SRC President Bill Green justified the board's brazen moves by saying, "Every single stakeholder has stepped up to help the district close its structural deficit--the principals, our blue-collar workers. Families and children have too, through the loss of resources, increased class sizes and lack of materials. It is time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to share in the sacrifice."

This tired rhetoric of "shared sacrifice" often accompanies cuts to the public sector in order to shift the responsibility for financial shortfalls onto workers and the public. In reality, Philadelphia teachers have absorbed more than their share of the burden already, enduring a pay freeze and several rounds of budget cuts, and continuing to serve in city schools while their suburban counterparts are paid considerably more for working in better conditions. As years of budget cuts have stripped many buildings bare, teachers have also subsidized the school district by supplying classrooms out of their own pockets.

THE STATE of Pennsylvania replaced the Philadelphia Board of Education with the School Reform Commission (SRC) in 2001, bringing an end to local control of public education in the city--and simultaneously eliminated the teachers' right to strike. The state takeover was in response to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by then-Superintendent David Hornbeck, which contended that state funding favored affluent white suburbs and discriminated against nonwhite Philadelphia students.

As Daniel Denvir explained in the Nation, "What followed was likely the largest state takeover--and at the time, the largest experiment in privatization--in the history of U.S. public education. The message was clear: public management, not underfunding and segregation, was the problem."

Successive waves of private-sector education reform have swept through Philadelphia. In 2001, a Republican governor put the privately run Edison Schools in charge of dozens of Philly schools.

Next, Paul Vallas served as the superintendent of schools from 2002 through 2007, in which time he turned 45 low-performing schools over to a mix of for-profit and nonprofit private providers. He outsourced a multitude of services to companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review.

In more recent years, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has implemented more than a billion dollars in budget cuts since his Tea Party base elected him to office in 2010, along with a big financial helping hand from the natural gas industry, which is eager to frack in Pennsylvania.

In 2013 alone, 26 public schools were shuttered and 3,783 teachers were terminated. Now, one in every four Philadelphia students attends a charter school, an estimated 60,700 students.

SO THE attack on the PFT is the only latest round in the effort to dismantle public education in Philadelphia.

That's why a range of groups have stepped forward to back the union, including Fight for Philly, Action United, and Pennsylvania Working Families. With this coalition, the union organized an impromptu protest at Gov. Corbett's office on the afternoon of October 6, where many called for the abolition of the SRC. Students responded three days later with a walkout and student strike involving more than 200 high school students from multiple campuses.

The student strike raises obvious questions about the possibility of a teachers' strike, even though there are legal prohibitions against a work stoppage. When asked about the potential for job actions in an October 6 press conference, PFT President Jerry Jordan responded by saying, "I am taking nothing off the table...We are not indentured servants"

The PFT believes that the state takeover law, known as Act 46, requires the SRC to negotiate around salary and benefits, and plans to bring a legal challenge to the SRC's unilateral action.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education and School District of Philadelphia have already filed a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment that they have the legal authority to take unilateral action. AFT President Randi Weingarten has enlisted members of the Philadelphia City Council to pressure the SRC to return to the bargaining table.

While this debate plays out in the courts and among the union officialdom, pressure will continue to mount in the streets. The PFT, the Caucus of Working Educators (WE) and allied community groups have called for a demonstration at SDP headquarters on Thursday, October 16, before the regularly scheduled meeting of the SRC.

Many people are also looking to the November 4 gubernatorial elections as a source of relief to the schools crisis. The American Federation of Teachers-Pennsylvania has endorsed challenger Tom Wolf, who promises to restore cuts in state funding to public schools statewide and establish greater oversight of publicly funded charter schools.

Many hope that Wolf will do away with the SRC altogether. But it should be pointed out that Democrats at both the state and local levels have backed the school reform agenda in the city. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, in fact, supports the SRC's move to scrap the PFT contract.

The showdown in Philadelphia has big implications for teachers' unions nationally--and indeed, all of organized labor. As Kristin Luebbert, a steering committee member of the Caucus of Working Educators, said:

What people need to understand is that this is not just about a pay cut. It's about taking power away from working people and educators and giving it to money managers, banks, and hedge fund managers, who are not trained or inclined to serve the best interests of children.

Further Reading

From the archives