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Learning from Chicago

As charters and cuts erode teacher jobs here, Philadelphians draw lessons from the organizing successes of another big-city union.
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    Photo: Harvey Finkle

Asked what “portfolio management” means to him, Jerry Jordan’s answer was swift and certain:

“Big business. Outsourcing. It’s literally getting rid of public service,” said the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

But when asked about the PFT’s strategy for slowing a trend that has seen thousands of teaching jobs shifted to non-union charter schools, Jordan’s answer was more general: “We have to work more closely with the parents and the people in the community in order to make sure our schools are funded adequately. We can’t survive another billion-dollar cut.”

Jordan, a PFT staffer since 1987 who was elected president in 2008, spoke while standing in the sun-dappled foyer of the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where about 200 teachers, community activists, union advocates, and public education supporters had gathered Sept. 22 for the first conference of the newly-formed Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS). On this sunny Saturday, the group’s goal was to start developing a community-supported alternative to the School Reform Commission’s vision of an increasingly decentralized, charter-heavy “portfolio” system.

The day had begun with a rousing critique of the SRC’s plans, described as a well-organized, well-funded private-interest takeover of public education. Attendees heard that they needed to go “on the offense” to fight privatization. And they heard that they could look for inspiration from Chicago, where the 26,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) just wrapped up a seven-day strike that won pay increases, defeated a merit-pay plan, and secured a recall policy for teachers affected by school closings – while demonstrating a powerful, unified union front.

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Jordan called Chicago’s strike an impressive effort that Philadelphia can learn from. “It was no accident,” he said.

But does the PFT have the capacity and strategy to organize like its Chicago counterpart did?

Anissa Weinraub, a District teacher now in her seventh year, doesn’t think so – at least, not yet.

“I’m not anti-union, and I’m not anti-Jerry,” said Weinraub, a teacher at El Centro de Estudiantes and organizer with the grassroots Teacher Action Group. “But when teachers [in Philadelphia] say ‘the union,’ they’re not thinking of themselves. They’re thinking of the leadership, the people who are paid to be there.

“What we learned from Chicago is that that has to change,” she said.

Weinraub said that the foundation of Chicago’s strike was actually laid four years ago when a faction of rank-and-file educators, frustrated by what they considered leadership’s overly cautious approach to challenging school closures, began to organize on their own at the school level. The group dubbed itself the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) and quickly helped stop several closures.

Two years later, CORE’s slate of candidates won a leadership election. Karen Lewis, a chemistry teacher with 20 years’ classroom experience, became the CTU president.

“We were just trying to build some unity in our union, which had been extremely fractured and kind of moribund,” Lewis recently told Democracy Now. “We wanted … to empower our rankand-file teachers so that the real work of the union is in the buildings, not in an office downtown. We wanted to go from a service model to an organizing model.”

The Chicago contract agreement may not be a slam-dunk victory for the union, but the CTU has won praise from labor leaders and public education advocates for successfully pushing back against austerity demands of the reform movement, and positioning teachers as guardians of quality education.

Polls showed that two out of three Chicago public school parents supported the union. “Chicago’s teachers and parents sparked a national conversation about how we make every public school a school where parents want to send their kids and teachers want to teach,” said Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement after the settlement.

Back at the PCAPS conference, many believed that Philadelphia needs to consider following CTU’s example. The number of unionized teachers in the city has been steadily dropping. Between 2002 and 2011, one in ten instructional jobs disappeared – 2,500 in all. In 2011, the budget crisis hit, resulting in a further 15 percent cut in instructional staff.

Of the city’s 84 charter schools, only five are unionized. The prospect of 40 or more school closures, and continued expansion of charters, suggests to some that the union must muster its membership, or face further erosion.

“It’s a critical time to develop organizing capacity – members need to be prepared to align with the community,” said Jesse Zeigler, a national organizer with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “Rather than expecting elected leaders and staff to do the work, I think we need to learn to expect more out of the rank and file of every union.”

Anne Gemmell of Fight for Philly, a coalition of labor and community groups, said, “We’re getting beat back to our heels, because [the reform movement’s] offense is so strong. Schools need to start organizing and say, ‘This is what we need to make our school good. Stop telling us what we need to make do with.’”

And in a “breakout session” of teachers, while overall support for the union was strong, many wanted the PFT to do more to galvanize and organize its rank and file. “There’s a sense of complacency,” said one.

Danecia Burton, a fifth-year teacher at Cooke Elementary, said the union isn’t harnessing its greatest strength: its members. “The message gets out there,” Burton said. “The problem is, there’s no action taking place with the message. I can go to 40 rallies – but if nothing happens after the rallies, next year I’m not going to go to 40 more rallies.”

Downstairs, Jerry Jordan says he hears these concerns. “It’s [a criticism] that I will take seriously,” Jordan said. The PFT plans to continue working with the PCAPS coalition to develop an alternative reform plan, he said. Asked if the PFT had specific plans to organize among its members, Jordan said, “Our staff is in schools every day. … They have these conversations.”

And asked if the PFT’s school-level organization is where it needs to be, Jordan said, “We can always do better.”

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