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Caucus of teachers’ union focused on social justice holds first conference

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

This past spring, a caucus formed within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers with the goal of energizing the union’s ranks and re-engaging members in pressing issues of social justice in education.

On Nov. 8, the Caucus of Working Educators (WE) held its first annual convention at the Old First Reformed United Church of Christ in Philadelphia, where more than 125 teachers, counselors, and education advocates from Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey came to learn more about strategizing and organizing.

“It’s a get-together, it’s a rally, it’s an informational setting,” said Kristin Luebbert, the communications chair of the caucus. “It’s all those things, to help expand the work we need to do for our children right now.”

The keynote speaker, Yohuru Williams, a professor of history at Fairfield University and a member of the Badass Teachers Association, compared the mission of the caucus and the goal of its first conference with Martin Luther King Jr.’s goals during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

“I want to be clear: We have the power to transform education,” said Williams. “I want to be clear, because our schools are not failing, it is our democracy that is failing. And we’re going to need to address and correct that if we’re going to be successful in endeavors to preserve public education.”

Williams called poverty, not school reform, the civil rights issue of today. He said people should be “inspired to do more than just think about the issue, but engage in solutions that will bring about change of the present conditions.”

WE, which has 150 paid members, belongs to the United Caucus of Rank and File Educators, a national network of social justice caucuses led by the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, whose members were elected to leadership positions in the Chicago Teachers Union in 2010 and subsequently led a successful strike in 2012 for a fairer contract.

According to Kelley Collings, a steering committee co-chair, WE interprets current public school reform policy as not only an attack on teachers and their benefits, but on the rights of all school faculty and workers in any sector, in Philadelphia and across the country, to organize and bargain collectively.

“We’re bracing ourselves for the long fight,” said Collings. “This is not about health care benefits. This is about the corporatizing of public education across the country.”

Collings said this fight requires democratic and transparent unions driven by the rank and file, and though it is "not an explicit goal” of WE to take on electoral leadership positions in the PFT, the two bodies maintain a relationship and communicate and collaborate openly.

Nonetheless, the caucus’ own platform is the motivation of their mobilizing efforts.

“[PFT leadership] have shown movement on their willingness to engage with teachers and parents on an equal, power-sharing playing field, but we also have a vision to move toward a rank-and-file agenda,” said Collings.

“We didn’t come out as a caucus to take down the leadership,” she said. “We came out to strengthen the union and to organize the rank-and-file to be moving on issues constantly in the streets, in partnership with parents and community members.”

After Williams ended his speech, attendees divided into workshops, where discussion topics included corporate interest in public education, the Chicago Teachers Union and its organizing strategy, and community involvement in schools.

They also listened to presentations from Labor Notes, a media and organizing project that serves as a voice of union advocates, and the Movement of Rank and File Educators, the social justice caucus of the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s teachers’ union. The convention ended with training sessions on organizing skills and a closing plenary concerning the future agenda of the union.

For Amy Roat, who is also on WE’s steering committee, the convention was “a time for people to be quiet and look at the big picture, putting it in historical perspective.”

Roat, a founding caucus member, said the PFT was a grassroots union during its nascent years. But, she said, the general membership is now in a lull, leaving leadership in total control of the union’s agenda during a hostile political climate.

“It’s now on me to be active and for others to be active,” said Roat. “The leadership can’t do it all.”

Moving forward, Roat said WE members must become politicized and educate themselves and others on the upcoming Democratic primary and mayoral races in order to hold Gov.-elect Tom Wolf and city candidates accountable to their education agendas.

“We definitely want people to have a voice,” she said, “but we always want to educate people. We’re teachers, we always go back to education.”

Payne Schroeder is an intern at the Notebook.