Is Social Justice Unionism Going to Save Public Education in Philadelphia?

The School District of Philadelphia is about to witness a process that can bring major changes to the city’s public education system.  These changes will not come from the General Assembly in Harrisburg, City Hall or the School Reform Commission.  Instead, they’ll come through contested union elections within the Philadelphia of Federation of Teachers.  As reported earlier, the Caucus of Working Educators is challenging the union’s executive leadership by running on a social justice unionism platform that comes with a winning track record.

Social justice unionism makes the local union more democratic, organizes rank and file members and organizes in the communities they serve.  Reform caucuses within the country’s largest school districts have swept union elections, organized wayward rank and file members and organized their communities.  Because of all this, teacher unions have brought major changes to membership and advancements to the community through direct action and the bargaining table.

The first major victory occurred in 2010 when the Chicago Teachers Union elections when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) ousted the United Progressive Caucus, who held control of the union for 38 years.  Karen Lewis was elected president of the CTU after getting 59 percent of the vote in a runoff election and the CORE slate swept nine citywide offices and 23 vice presidencies in elementary and high schools.  After the 2010 election, newly elected union leaders focused on organizing members and laying the groundwork for the infamous 2012 strike.  The organizing efforts sought to find and build leaders in every school, and efforts ramped up when the Board of Education made the decision to close 17 schools.  According to Norine Guetkanst:

The tactics of our coalition were confrontational and escalated throughout the effort. We disrupted and took over a board meeting; parents and community activists occupied a school; and community organizations led a vigil outside the mayor’s home. These actions built members’ confidence in the types of tactics we would use during the strike and provided visible examples of joint union-community action.

This, along with more organizing laid the groundwork for the 2012 strike.  When the strike occurred, teachers had picket duty at every school.  They shut down traffic with marches throughout Chicago’s financial district. Held rallies in predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods, and had overwhelming support from the public.  Besides resolving issues around fair pay and health care, the conclusion of the CTU strike brought major victories to the local community.  The teachers were able to get more funding for music and art education programs, school supplies, textbooks, shorter school hours and mayoral accountability.

In the past year, the Progressive Educators for Action Caucus in Los Angeles ran a 25 member “Union Power” slate and changed leadership by sweeping all 25 seats.  Then in San Francisco, the Educators for a Democratic Union ran a 16 member slate and claimed 14 victories.  When reform caucuses aren’t winning in the ballot box, they’re winning in the streets through actions and strikes.

The caucus responsible for reforming the Seattle Teachers Association, Social Equality Educators, fell 45 votes short of taking over the presidency with the turnout at 54 percent, which is “twice as many participating as ever before,” according to SEA President Jonathan Knapp.  The teacher who challenged Knapp was Jesse Hagopian, who rose to prominence leading a testing boycott against “Measures of Academic Progress’ in Seattle.

His work or any anyone else’s in the Social Equality Educators stopped there.  Earlier this month, the Seattle Teachers Association went on strike for the first time in 30 years after teachers the voted unanimously to go through with the action.  According to Hagopian, the contract “contract contains many hard fought wins for social justice that the school district said it would never grant,” and they include scaling back standardized testing, more recess and race and equality teams in the schools.  But the largest win was not with the contract.  Hagopian explains that the largest victory was the solidarity that the community showed.  The striking teachers were able to garner support from parents, the local NAACP and the city council.

For the past two years, the Caucus of Working Educators in Philadelphia have been holding actions and campaigns against standardized testing, charter school expansion and many other issues facing public education in the School District of Philadelphia.  In order to save public education in Philadelphia, the four Caucus of Working Educator members running on a slate against Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Leadership truly believe that the union must adopt a social justice unionism platform.

The last four years for public education in Philadelphia has been rough, facing constant attacks from the State General Assembly, the School Reform Commission, City Council and the Mayor’s Office.  In 2011, Governor Tom Corbett proposed a 50 percent cut to public education, but the General Assembly dialed it back to a 20 percent, billion dollar, cut.  Since then, the Republican dominated legislature has refused to restore Governor Corbett’s cuts four years later.  Because of the cuts, the School Reform Commission voted to close 24 of 37 schools for the 2012-2013 budget.  The contract between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the School District of Philadelphia expired in the summer of 2014 and the School Reform Commission tried to cancel the contract with the union.

The four teachers that are challenging PFT executive leadership are Amy Roat and Kelley Collings who both teach at the Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, Yassin Muhammed and Ismael Jimanez.  Like Jesse Hagopian,  Amy Roat and Kelley Collings gained notoriety earlier this year for their actions with the “Feltonville Six,” who were six teachers that promoted standardized testing boycotts and got around 200 students, roughly 40 percent of the school, to opt out of a standardized test.  Yassin Muhammed and Ismael Jimanez are both history teachers and have been teaching in the school district for seven years.

Kelley Collings was blunt when we reached out to the Caucus of Working Educators slate to discuss their campaign.  She told the Raging Chicken Press that “the very future of public education is at stake.  If we don’t fight, there will be no more public education in Philadelphia, and we will not have a union.”  Collings associates the attacks on public education as an ongoing war that is being waged on our Commons – whether it is health care, social security or other safety nets.  In order to stop these attacks, unions must extend “beyond the bread-and-butter trade unionist business model of the past,” and “build an engaged, politicized, and mobilized rank and file union membership that has meaningful partnerships with parent, student, and community groups at the local school level and across the city.”

While Amy and Yassin do come with the same fiery approach as Kelley, they do share the same beliefs on how to build relationships within the community.  Yassin Muhammed explained that he worked at Central High School and Northeast High School over the past 7 years and witnessed the closing of dozens of schools.  He sees this platform and approach as an “appropriate response to the attacks that public education has endured, we see these attacks as attacks on the community of students and parents who deserve a fully funded, socially, and culturally responsive education.”  Amy Roat shares the same perspective when it comes to issues that involve the community they teach in.  She explains “what is important to the community in Kensington, may be different to circumstances in Kingsessing, although their may be common themes of school closures, low wage jobs, or gentrification.”

The Caucus of Working Educators’ organizing efforts and campaign to transform the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers comes with a track record of winning elections and bringing real reforms to public school districts whether it is through direct actions, member engagement or the bargaining table.  If there is one thing that all of the candidates agree on, it is that social justice unionism will make the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers a stronger union and it will bring needed changes to the communities they serve and a much maligned school district.



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About Sean Kitchen 681 Articles
Contributor and Assistant Editor for the Raging Chicken Press. Stationed in Harrisburg covering politics in the capitol. You can send tips to or reach me on twitter at @RCPress_Sean!
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