The Philadelphia School District has made a package of teacher contract proposals that are extreme, far-reaching, and downright mean-spirited.
- Wage cuts of up to 13 percent next year and no raises for five years. Step increases eliminated.
- Benefits cut. Health and Welfare Fund eliminated.
- Seniority eliminated. District can transfer teachers at whim. Principals will have discretion to hire, fire, and lay off.
- Class-size caps gone. District's obligation to provide supplies gone. All but a handful of certified librarians gone. Even teachers' lounges gone.
This would essentially take teachers and school employees back almost 50 years, to 1965, before there was a union contract. The gains that Philadelphia Federation of Teachers members worked so hard to get would be wiped out.
After the release of these proposals and teachers' howls of outrage in response, Superintendent William Hite tried to reframe the District’s position. Although he showed plenty of rhetorical respect for teachers, the substance of his remarks was that teachers should trust the District instead of relying on protections in a union contract. He ignores the historical reality that these contract provisions were negotiated precisely because the District failed to live up to its responsibilities to provide adequate teaching and learning conditions. Trusting them to do it now, in the midst of the worst fiscal crisis in the District’s history, would be like asking a hungry fox to take care of the chicken coop.
This contract package is not about gaining flexibility to improve instruction. It is about saving money and solving the fiscal crisis on the backs of teachers and their students. The District's proposals mirror the recommendations of the Boston Consulting Group.
Although it is tempting to see this as the usual collective-bargaining dance in which the District demands givebacks and then backs off at the end, this is not the case. The District has a billion-dollar-plus deficit over the next five years. The five-year plan is about “right-sizing” through closing schools and restructuring compensation, benefits, and work rules for school employees. If the District wanted a decent contract that could improve schools, it would be pressing for more funding in Harrisburg. At the city level, other than a call to go after tax deadbeats, there has been no initiative to get more funding. This plan is a conscious choice made by the elites that run this city in favor of privatization and austerity.
So what can be done? In my view, the union needs to do three things to defeat this set of proposals.
Mobilize and organize the PFT membership. The Chicago Teachers Union provided a powerful example of how to transform a largely passive, demoralized membership into a militant, fully mobilized force. The CTU hired internal organizers and developed democratic forms that brought the rank and file into the life of the union and the whole contract struggle. A similar effort is needed here.
Reach out to organize and educate the community. The contract that the SRC wants will not only harm school workers. It will negatively impact learning conditions in what is already a bare-bones instructional program. It will mean the loss of experienced teachers and larger class sizes, and the District will be poorly placed to attract qualified new people. The PFT, by helping to build PCAPS, has begun to change what has been a troubled relationship with the community. This work must continue and intensify.
Build solidarity with other unions. Unions are under attack nationally and locally. Other public sector unions are particularly under the gun. Building a united front against these attacks based on the understanding that a defeat for the PFT would have serious consequences for other public sector workers is critical. This means that we have to join others in their fight, notably AFSME District 33 and 47, who have gone five years without a contract. In past strikes, it was the threat of a general strike by Philadelphia labor that turned the tide.
If all these things are done well, the union could be in a position to back down the School Reform Commission. It needs to be prepared to strike in the streets and make a court challenge to Act 46, which bans strikes and threatens teachers with loss of certification. With broad public support and backing from organized labor, a strike could be won.
Ron Whitehorne is a retired teacher and is on the steering committee of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.