This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Caucus of Working Educators, which is trying to topple the long-dominant Collective Bargaining (CB) Team for leadership of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, is protesting the union’s election procedures — or the lack of them so far.
WE, as it is known, also alleges that CB-loyal building representatives – the elected union leaders at each school – are improperly seeking to bar them from distributing flyers and holding meetings in school buildings.
"The PFT Executive Board sets the timeline and procedures for the election, and have thus far refused to make the arrangements, despite repeated requests from the Caucus over the last two months," says a post on the WE website.
The failure to adopt the procedures means that WE doesn’t know the deadline for filing nominating petitions, or even all the offices that will be contested. The membership of the executive board varies as some job categories are changed or eliminated by the District.
"All we know is that, according to the PFT Constitution, the election must happen between January and April of 2016. … Why is the current leadership refusing to start up the process? All PFT members deserve to know the timeline and procedures for the upcoming election – and they deserve to know it now."
The PFT votes for president every four years; in recent years, these elections have generally been quiet, internal affairs. The CB caucus has run the union since the 1980s, and although there have occasionally been opposing candidates, this campaign is the first serious challenge in two decades.
WE, which claims close to 300 dues-paying members, is holding its convention this Saturday, Nov. 14, at which the leaders will announce a slate and a platform based on a series of listening sessions that leaders have been holding with teachers.
PFT president Jerry Jordan responded to WE’s assertions by saying that he is following all the procedures laid out in the union’s constitution for elections. A new CB election website says that procedures for the two most recent elections were not finalized until December.
He urged the WE members to be patient.
"They’re crying foul when there is no foul," he said. "The timeline is described in the constitution. … I think they’re making much ado about nothing, if they just are a little patient. … We told them, when they’ve asked, the elections will be done properly."
WE leaders, however, say that they are feeling intimidated and that the union is being undemocratic.
Tom Quinn, a teacher at Central and a WE organizer, said that some building reps are "either misinformed or intentionally trying to stop the [WE] caucus from reaching members." He said one building rep sent out an email to members saying that only she can use the building for any "formal or informal" PFT-related meetings at any time or put flyers regarding union activity in members’ mailboxes. WE has been announcing its listening sessions through flyers.
"I read the contract," said Quinn. "The only clause that mentioned mailboxes says the PFT has a right to distribute information. It doesn’t say other members of the union don’t have a right." Plus, he added, the labor law under which PFT operates makes it clear that leaders cannot use incumbency or paid staffers to deny to potential rivals equal access to members.
Jordan said that he "can’t respond to what is going on in various buildings," adding, "My team, we can’t be in very building every day. We have jobs to do. I can’t and I won’t respond to empty allegations."
WE’s mission is to put stark focus on educational inequality and the damage it does to teachers, students, and society. The caucus emphasizes close relationships with parents and community members through what leaders call "deep organizing" as opposed to "shallow mobilizing" and wants the union to take the lead in campaigns like the "opt-out" movement against standardized tests.
Similar movements of internal dissent focusing on a social justice platform have ousted long-term teacher union leadership in cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Milwaukee.
WE wants the union to "articulate a vision of what a union should be like in the 21st century," according to Ismael Jimenez, a teacher at Kensington CAPA and one of the WE members who have made themselves available to run for top leadership posts.
The others are Kelley Collings and Amy Roat, both teachers at Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences, and Yaasiyn Muhammad, a teacher at Central.
Jordan assumed the presidency of PFT in July 2007, when Ted Kirsch stepped down to become president of the Pennsylvania AFT chapter. Jordan was first elected to a full term in 2008 with 91 percent of the vote.
The CB website, which this article links to, was accessible at the time of publication. The site is now password protected.
This story has been updated to correct where Jimenez and Muhammad teach and to reflect an increase in WE membership.