A Model of Unionization We Can No Longer Afford: Philly Teachers to Decide Future

Photo credit: Caucus of Working Educators, Facebook page

Yesterday, current Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president, Jerry Jordan, made an appearance on the Rick Smith Show to discuss the union’s upcoming, contested election. Jordan and much of his leadership team are facing a significant challenge from the Caucus of Working Educators, group of rank-and-file PFT members who argue that the future of Philadelphia public schools depends upon their union becoming more democratic and action-oriented. Jordan, who was elected for a second four-year term after running unopposed in 2012, has a long history of union involvement and has worked his way up the ranks of the PFT leadership since he began his teaching career in 1976. The Caucus of Working Educators formalized their organization in 2014. They argue that Jordan and his leadership team represent a model of unionization that is not – indeed cannot be – prepared to meet the challenges facing Philadelphia’s public schools and public sector unions in general.

In one respect, this story appears to be a familiar one – a group of Young Turks fed up with the establishment-supporting elders, demanding action now, on the one side; a seasoned group of leaders who have paid their dues and know what it “really” takes to run a successful union, on the other. That story could write itself.

However, it’s not that simple – nor is it ever.

The Caucus of Working Educators is arguing for “social justice unionism,” or “social movement unionism” – a rank-and-file, democratic, activist approach to worker organization. That model stands in stark contrast to “business unionism,” or the “service model of unionism” – a group of labor “experts” are elected to represent the interests and act on behalf of members; members, in turn, are less involved in the daily work of the union. The former is a “bottom-up” approach to unionism; the latter, “top-down.”

I accept that my quick overview here is too simplistic and paints too neat of a picture of the differences. However, as I listened to Jerry Jordan discuss the upcoming PFT elections with Rick Smith, it was like reading a textbook case of business unionism v. social justice unionism that has been playing out as long as workers fought to organize. But given the high-stakes of the future of public education in Philadelphia, next month’s PFT election is not an abstract choice between “models” of unionism, as much as it is a choice about what we need to do – we as workers, community members, citizens – to defend the public in the face of historically unprecedented attacks.

From my perspective, the status-quo is not equipped to do what is necessary to defend Philadelphia’s public schools, its students, its teachers, or its community members. Jerry Jordan just brought that fact sharply into focus yesterday [listen to the full interview below].

At the beginning of the interview, Rick commented that many of his education friends are saying that Philadelphia is “really ground zero” in the privatization attacks on public education “much like what we saw in Chicago.” Jordan’s response was telling. He said:

Oh, it is. In fact, Philadelphia, I think, is ground zero and was long before Chicago or any other city in the United States. If you go back to 2001 when the state took over the school district of Philadelphia and formed the SRC (School Reform Commission) whose purpose, they said, was to restore fiscal stability and to improve academic outcomes, and they’ve done neither. But what they have done is that they have created a system that has allowed charter schools to flourish, which diverts millions of dollars from the school district.

We are a school district that has, as you know, been underfunded by the state legislature, especially for the four years that the Corbett administration was in place and as a result of this battle that is going on in Harrisburg with the unresolved budget that Governor Wolf has been fighting to restore the Corbett cuts to all school districts across the Commonwealth and then to appropriate additional funding based upon a funding formula that has been agreed upon. That still isn’t happening. So, here in Philadelphia, we are really dealing with all of these cuts; they have not been good, they have not been favorable to the children of Philadelphia.

Rick invoked Chicago for a reason, of course. Like Philadelphia, Chicago public schools have been under attack by profiteers posing as “reformers,” an attack that shifted into high gear once Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, was elected mayor in 2011. Chicago became the face of the attacks on public education, due in large part to the militant organizing of the Chicago Federation of Teachers (CFT). The CFT strike of 2012, became the iconic image of movement unionism as the recently elected Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) under the leadership of the fiery Karen Lewis filled Chicago’s streets with thousands of teachers, education professionals, students, parents and community members. The CFT strike was part a refusal to continue the policies of austerity that had led to cutting teachers, declining pay, and larger classrooms; but, the CFT also organized with community members, other unions, and parents to opposed the corporatization of  Chicago’s public schools.

Photo credit: Sarah-Ji, "20120910Rally-45," Flickr
Photo credit: Sarah-Ji, “20120910Rally-45,” Flickr

Jordan’s comment that Philadelphia was “ground zero” in the attack on public education long before Chicago or any other city, kind of begs the question of why haven’t we seen a similar mass mobilization of teachers, community members, and parents in Philadelphia? Part of answer to that question is that the PFT has not been organized to do what CORE did in Chicago; it’s been organized like most Pennsylvania unions – a service model, top-down organization. That made a certain kind of sense until the Tea Party election victories in 2010, which launched an all out attack on the public sector; the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision, which opened the flood gates for unencumbered corporate donations politicians; and, the persistent drum beat of corporate-funded legislation funneled from corporate CEOs to state legislatures through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

In our “new normal,” old-style negotiations, expert testimony, and press releases don’t cut it. At best, traditional, service unionism can slow the rate of destruction. Let’s face it, since Obama’s election in 2008, the increasing power of the right-wing has produced politicians who have walked away from compromise and reasonable discussion – they are bent on destroying the public sector. And in THAT context, marching to the same old tune is self-destructive. The CFT reminded many of us in the union movement that the power of a union ultimately depends on how well its members are mobilized.

Jordan was asked specifically about the challenge from the Caucus of Working Educators. Rick said, “your opponents are saying that, look, we’re not doing enough mobilizing of parents and teachers and those kind of things. How do you address that?” Again, Jordan’s response is what you would expect from business unionism:

Well, I disagree with my opponents who say that. One of the things that we have done is we have, as a union, done a tremendous amount of parental engagement and community engagement in order to highlight the issues that exist in our schools…We have spent the last four years, particularly, really, really increasing that and there are a number of surveys that have been taken that show that the public and the parents have more trust in the union and what the union says — of teachers and other employees — than what the District is saying.

So…surveys? Abstract (and rather mechanical sounding) “parental engagement”? Rick attempted to get Jordan to talk more specifically about what he has done and the difficulty of mobilizing. He said, “Look, I look at what’s going on there and I talk to some people who seem demoralized. The attacks are coming from every direction. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t want to be a teacher today with the onslaught of attacks. So, I can understand how mobilizing might be difficult. Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve done to mobilize your members and get them activated?” Jordan responded:

We are in constant communication with our members about the issues. There is not a week that goes by that we do not send something out in writing to our members. We do it electronically in order to inform them of legislation that is going on in Harrisburg as well as to make them aware of issues our City Council deals with or any other issues that the SRC or the management in the School District may very well bring to the forefront. And, we tell them what the issue is, what it is that we believe that is right or wrong with it and what it is that we need for them to do.

We meet frequently with many of our community groups and we partner with them in order to focus on our schools and our kids. We were instrumental in creating a group that is called PCAP…it is a group of a variety of activists and organizations to come together and we work together, instead of working against each other and fighting each other.

We talk about the issues and we take a position, such as the recent – and it’s currently in the news – the Superintendent’s recommendation to convert a couple of schools – three schools – to charter schools. We said, no, they shouldn’t be converted to charter schools. They need resources. The resources have been cut drastically to those schools. We need to give them the additional services that the children and their families need and want. Last year, when the school district attempted to convert Steel and Muñoz-Marín to charter schools, we worked in the community with the staff and with the parents. And, when parents were given the choice, by vote, as to whether or not they wanted Steel and Muñoz-Marín to become charter schools, they voted no. They wanted their schools to remain neighborhood schools in their community and part of the public school system, with additional resources, with support. So, we’ve been very active in mobilizing our parents and members.

I quote Jordan’s response in full here. I don’t know about you, but his response sounds quite removed from the action. These are things that happened. How the PFT helped the mobilization is unclear. To be fair, maybe PFT leadership did a lot. However, that does not come through in Jordan’s description. Contrast Jordan’s notion of mobilization with a Caucus of Working Educators action happening tonight: #OccupyTheSRC. Here’s the call to action on their Facebook event page:

Show the SRC that Philadelphia’s educators and allies want our schools to stay fully public, not turned over to private enterprises looking to profit off our students and communities.

Join parents and educators from Huey, Cooke, and Wister in solidarity against these charter turnover plans. Charter supporters will be packing the meeting and we need a show of numbers for our side as well.

#SaveHuey! #Fight4Cooke! #SaveWister!

About #OccupyTheSRC: We do not show up to SRC meetings with the expectation to change their minds, but join with fellow education advocates to stand up for the truly democratic, community process Philly schools deserve. As the saying goes, the people united will never be defeated.

On January 21st, help us flood the SRC meeting with public education-supporting teachers and families to show them what a REAL public meeting looks like! #WEarePFT

The Caucus of Working Educators has issued 9 position papers outlining how it wants to mobilize members for power. There is little doubt that if the Caucus of Working Educators win the majority of leadership positions in the upcoming election, which begins on February 4th, the union is in for a change much closer to what we’ve seen in Chicago since CORE took control in 2010. That’s the kind of energy that the union movement in Pennsylvania seriously needs.

When asked why he wants to remain the PFT president, Jordan told Rick:

I would be like to be able to conclude the work that we have begun. We have a case going before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. It’s probably one of the biggest cases we’ve ever dealt with. I started it with this membership and I want to see the fight completed. As I said earlier, we’ve been very, very active – our members have been – in getting people elected to office who we believe will be favorable to public education. And we need to make sure that we are there when the actions that they take are going to be beneficial for Philadelphia’s kids.

I don’t think that it’s time to turn the reigns over to people who are not as knowledgeable about these cases. We just want to make sure that we are able to see a fair funding formula put in place, something that we have been advocating for many, many years, to make sure that that’s in place. And that our schools will be moving in the right direction for Philadelphia’s children.

So… A) you want to finish what you started; and, B) don’t change horses in midstream? That’s your case?

From my perspective, the PFT – or ANY union in the Commonwealth for that matter – can no longer afford to stay on the horse of the status-quo. That horse is drowning. Not because it’s a bad horse. But because the right-wing politicos and their billionaire funders have just opened up the floodgates upstream. Simply staying on the same horse is not going to cut it.

In the face of the deepening attacks on public education in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania, I can’t see how those of us in the union movement can continue with business unionism and usual. I have no doubt that Jerry Jordan has been a devoted and hard-working member of PFT for his entire career. This has nothing to do with how hard-working or dedicated he and his leadership team are. Rather, it is about recognizing that the only thing that is going to save public education in Philadelphia and across the state is a union movement willing to return to its more militant roots.

Philadelphia teachers will decide beginning on February 4th whether or not they think the Caucus of Working Educators can be that change capable of bringing the fight back to Philly.


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  1. PFT Elections Results: Collective Bargaining Team Holds on to Power | Raging Chicken Press


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