The leadership and direction of the politically influential Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will be up for grabs over the next few weeks.
The incumbent leadership slate — known as the Collective Bargaining Team — is seeing its most robust challenge in decades from a rank-and-file division that calls itself the Caucus of Working Educators, also known as WE.
WE prides itself as a proponent of "social-justice unionism" that aims to place trauma-informed care of students at the core of its agenda.
"We have to address those issues of poverty, or things will never get better in the classroom. And I think that is a big scary notion, but 11,000 caring teachers and other professionals can do this," said Amy Roat, WE's nominee for union president.
WE formed two years ago, in part, because it believes that existing leaders are too disconnected from the classroom experience.
"The CB Team, the majority of them have not been in the classroom for two, three decades. We would like to have teachers floating in and out of leadership positions," said Yaasiyn Muhammad, WE's chosen vice president.
Roat and Muhammad draw inspiration from the victories of underdog caucuses that have risen to power in Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
"Status quo unionism is top-down, business model unionism," said Muhammad, who teaches history at Central High. "And we're talking about unionism that's ground-up, unionism that's about ideas, that's about action."
Setting alarm for a 'sleeping giant'
A change in union leadership could have a huge impact on the 130,000 Philadelphia children who attend District-run schools in the city. WE leaders say existing leadership has "put members to sleep," and that their caucus will "awaken a sleeping giant" that will organize around the issues that they say most affect kids inside and outside of schools.
"I want to explode some of the notions that we accept in our building, like standardized testing as the most important thing. And I want to talk about things that would really help my kids," said Roat. "I teach English language learners. Those issues are important to me. The parents are concerned with things about immigration and how they can get access to health care."
Roat and fellow Feltonville teacher Kelley Collings have been outspoken proponents of parents opting out of standardized testings. Opt-out rates at Feltonville soared in the wake of their advocacy.
Since its founding, WE has shown itself to be an extremely tech-savvy organization, capable of quickly creating websites and shaping an ideological conversation on social media. Members have also been increasingly visible at School Reform Commission meetings, where they've frequently organized grading parties and passionately testified — sometimes in song and rhyme.
Part of WE's frustration with the CB Team is that members have been working under an expired contract since August 2013 and haven't seen an across-the-board pay raise in four years — all while staff levels and school conditions have worsened.
"The only thing that can explain that is a lack of leadership," Roat said.
Decades of challenges
Through this time, though, the District has operated on austerity budgets and has sought major givebacks by the union — which incumbent president Jerry Jordan has successfully avoided.
"They think you can go to a table, and you can sit there and bang, and you can scream at the opposite side of the table, and that instantly they'll say, 'Oh, OK, we're going to drop that.'" said Jordan. "It doesn't work that way."