Opinion: WE caucus has new, needed vision for PFT
Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will choose their officers in an election next month. Members will vote by mail between Feb. 6 and Feb. 25. The Caucus of Working Educators (WE) is challenging the longtime leadership of the Collective Bargaining (CB) Team.
After teaching history in Oregon and New York, I moved to Philadelphia to work at Lincoln High School this fall. I was shocked by the conditions there. The building was over capacity by hundreds of students. This overcrowding meant that teachers had to share classrooms. Some were put in the “library,” where they removed bookshelves and installed office dividers so three classes could run simultaneously.
I had become accustomed to spending money on school supplies, but I was now expected to buy everything. After spending $1,000, a colleague and I set up a Donors Choose campaign for copy machine toner and paper. I was stunned when I got my student roster with more than 200 names.
But the conditions at my school are just the tip of the iceberg. In November, a Philly teacher made national headlines when she announced a lawsuit after she was diagnosed with mesothelioma, which is related to exposure to loose asbestos fibers. Six schools have closed this year due to asbestos concerns. Teachers and students are literally being poisoned by the city’s toxic schools.
These conditions are the result of decades of disinvestment. Most recently, the 17-year reign of the state-controlled School Reform Commission devastated Philly’s schools using a familiar corporate playbook: Starve public schools of resources, label them as failures, close them and replace them with privately run, non-union charter schools, which further reduces resources for the traditional public schools and restarts the cycle.
When combined with the historically high rate of private school enrollment, the growth of charters has meant that District schools now only educate about half the city’s students. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) membership has declined from 21,000 to 13,000.
But I didn’t only enter a school district with problems, I entered a movement attempting to solve them. The Caucus of Working Educators (WE), formed in 2014, has fought tirelessly against school closures, toxic building conditions, excessive paperwork, and bullying principals while championing the return of local control and progressive tax policies. In 2017, WE’s racial justice committee spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action, which now takes place in more than 30 cities.
Next month, teachers will vote on who they want to lead the PFT. Coming into the district, I was introduced to members of WE who came to the District’s new-hire orientation. Within weeks, I was organizing with others in my building. Our school is divided, and many support the reigning caucus — the Collective Bargaining Team (CB). That team has led the PFT for the last 30 years and — according to many veteran Philly teachers I’ve met — has operated as a textbook case of “business unionism.”
Education professor and union activist Lois Weiner describes this model as one in which union leadership, instead of prioritizing organizing, sees its role as providing services such as benefits from a welfare fund, pensions, contract negotiations, and grievance support. Members are passive except for voting on a contract and electing officers; the organization “runs on the assumption that paid officials know the best about everything. They’re supposedly the ‘experts.'”
When I began organizing at my school, most of the arguments my CB colleagues leveled against WE were directly tied to this conception of a union: “We need the expertise of those running our Health and Welfare fund,” “WE doesn’t have enough experience negotiating a contract.” Most arguments expressed fear of losing the “expertise” at the top of our union.
When I and others — including John Ryan, the former PFT president who has endorsed WE — point out how little that “expertise” has gotten us over the last three decades, we are met with arguments about how the leadership has had their hands tied by the anti-union political forces.
What WE offers is a challenge to the idea that any experts — no matter how experienced — can transform our schools for us. In order to substantially change the lives of educators and students, we need an informed, involved, and mobilized membership, working with the community we serve and willing to do what it takes to win our demands. Our union wasn’t hamstrung simply by the forces we were up against, but also by the strategies we employed — or didn’t employ— to fight those forces. Our union can continue providing welfare fund benefits, legal representation, grievance services and use our collective power to win more at negotiations. Together, we can change what is politically possible.
To do that, we need to raise our expectations, which is exactly what WE’s campaign is doing. Taking a page from the Chicago teachers, WE held meetings in the lead-up to the campaign where union members helped to envision the “Schools Philly Educators, Parents and Students Deserve.” More recently, WE organized paraprofessionals to write the Para Power Manifesto, inspired by the large raises that paras in Chicago won in the recent strike there. Both documents lay out a vision of what our union should be fighting for.
As the school year progressed, more and more of my colleagues have chosen to raise their expectations and commit to voting for WE. If WE wins, Philadelphia teachers will join a movement of those who have been transforming teacher unions from the bottom up in Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Paul, Milwaukee, Baltimore and beyond.
In my entire career, I’ve never had such a clear choice to decide the future of public education in the city I live in. I’m voting to join the educators’ revolt across the country. I’m voting to turn back the tide of disinvestment and corporate education reform. I’m voting for the belief in the collective power of those who work in the schools to transform the schools and the city we live in. I’m voting to win the schools that Philadelphia’s students, families, and educators deserve. I’m voting for the Caucus of Working Educators.
Adam Sanchez teaches history at Abraham Lincoln High School. He is a Rethinking Schools editor, a Zinn Education Project Teacher Leader, and the editor of Teaching a People’s History of Abolition and the Civil War (Rethinking Schools, 2019).