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Teacher advocacy group challenges PFT leadership

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

The Caucus of Working Educators (WE), a group of teachers who advocate “social justice unionism,” plans to challenge president Jerry Jordan and the current leadership in next year’s Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) election.

“We are a diverse group of rank-and-file members who felt disconnected from the PFT leadership,” said Larissa Pahomov, a Science Leadership Academy English teacher and caucus co-chair. “We don’t believe that a one-party union is good” for teachers.

Caucus leaders want to energize the membership by changing the culture of the union and mobilizing against attacks on public education. Similar rank-and-file organizations recently ousted long-term union leadership in such cities as Chicago and Los Angeles.

The group formed 18 months ago and claims more than 200 PFT members. It has emphasized issues not usually on the union election front burner, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, racial injustice, and students’ right to opt out of state testing.

Caucus candidates for top union positions include Amy Roat and Kelley Collings, who are both teachers at Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences and activists in the “opt-out” movement; Ismael Jimenez, a history teacher at Kensington CAPA; and Yaasiyn Muhammad, a history teacher at Central High School.

The caucus plans to run a slate covering all 36 officer and executive board slots. It has launched a “listening tour” to ask PFT’s 11,000 members what they need from the District and the union to best serve students. In November, the caucus plans to present a slate and platform at a WE convention.

Commenting on WE’s challenge, Jordan said: “The PFT is a democratic union, and this is democracy in action.” But he disputed that WE would bring a social justice focus to the PFT that is now lacking.

“We’ve been involved in social justice issues as long as I can remember,” said Jordan, a PFT officer since 1989, citing his insistence that the PFT contract include provisions such as the guarantee of at least one full-time counselor in every school.

The PFT and School Reform Commission have been in a three-year standoff, unable to reach a contract agreement during severe state funding cutbacks. A year ago, a frustrated SRC voted to nullify the contract entirely, sending the dispute to the courts and ending meaningful negotiations.

The mail-ballot election will be held between January and April. Besides teachers, the PFT represents counselors, nurses, secretaries, and some administrative workers and paraprofessionals.

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