Standing up for Philly teachers

Lauren Fleer reports on organizing by teachers, parents and students to stop the latest attack on Philadelphia educators and public schools.

Philadelphia teachers gather for a protest against the cancelation of their contract (Philadelphia Federation of Teachers)Philadelphia teachers gather for a protest against the cancelation of their contract (Philadelphia Federation of Teachers)

THREE THOUSAND people flooded the street in front of the School District of Philadelphia (SPD) building on October 16, in response to the School Reform Commission's (SRC) decision 10 days earlier to unilaterally cancel the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) and impose new fees for health insurance.

At a brief meeting that excluded most voices, the SRC, a state-controlled body, announced abruptly on October 6 that it was terminating the contract with the PFT.

The district plans to end payments to the PFT Health and Welfare Fund and take over administration of health care benefits. As of December 15, PFT members will be charged between 10 and 13 percent of their health insurance premiums--previously, they were covered by the district in full. According to school district officials, the cuts are supposed to produce $54 million this year and $70 million each year after.

Speakers at the October 16 rally included teachers, students, and labor leaders from a variety of service industries and trades from both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Many in the crowd carried signs calling for the abolition of the SRC and denouncing Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who has cut more than $1 billion from the state education budget since 2010. The right-wing Commonwealth Foundation paid counter-protesters to demonstrate against the union and in support of the SRC decision.

Dozens of people stayed after the protest to attend the first SRC meeting since the contract cancellation. Outraged teachers and parents gave three hours of comments, voicing forceful critiques and palpable disgust at the SRC's actions.

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THAT SAME evening, student activists with the Philadelphia Student Union organized a sit-in at a showing of the anti-union, pro-charter docudrama Won't Back Down at the School District of Philadelphia's "Parent Appreciation Night." Demonstrators said they wanted to challenge the way the film demonizes teachers unions and promotes charter expansion as the corrective to "failing" public schools.

Approximately 25 high school students sat on the floor in front of the movie screen, linked arm in arm and chanting, "SOS, save our schools," and, "The SRC has got to go." In response to the disobedient students, School Reform Commissioner Sylvia Simms lost all composure and yelled, "You must go to failing schools," and "You belong in jail."

In response to the SRC's attack, the Caucus of Working Educators (WE) has launched a campaign called "Keeping the Contract," which illustrates through a series of web testimonials teachers' intent to maintain their commitment to teaching Philadelphia students. The WE caucus has also organized "Regional Action Meetings" across the city to plan their next steps.

Union officials representing laborers, electricians, communications workers, janitors, nurses, bus drivers and other city employees told the Philadelphia Inquirer that they considered a general strike in response to the SRC action, but ultimately decided to hold off while legal remedies were being pursued. The PFT believes the state takeover law, known as Act 46, requires the SRC to negotiate around salary and benefits.

On October 22, the union won a legal battle, but only a temporary one. Pennsylvania courts granted the PFT a temporary injunction to prevent the SRC's October 6 decision from taking effect, while the courts continue to examine whether the SRC had the authority to impose the unilateral changes. While union members are relieved to have a reprieve, the battle is sure to continue. Both sides have vowed to continue the fight in the courts.

Philly labor leaders have so far eschewed striking in favor of pursuing an electoral strategy. "After a thorough vetting, we decided to go out and get Tom Wolf elected," said International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 president John Dougherty, referring to the Democratic challenger running against Corbett for governor. On October 25, hundreds of union members participated in an AFL-CIO sponsored canvass day aimed at getting out the vote for Wolf on November 4.

The unionists hope Wolf will honor his promise to do away with the SRC altogether. But Democrats at every level of government in Pennsylvania have backed the school "reform" agenda in the city. Wolf has promised to abolish the SRC, but he also supports the expansion of charter schools.

Already, one-third of Philadelphia students attend privately run charter schools. Encouraging further charter expansion only siphons off more public resources to private providers, and further undermines the goal of universal public education.

Even if Wolf wins and follows through on his promise to abolish the SRC, the financial pressures will remain. A locally controlled school board will still be tasked with running a school system that is grossly underfunded by the state.

That's why it's vital that students, parent, teachers and community members come together to fight this latest attack on public education and demand the kinds of fully funded schools and well-paid teachers that our students deserve.