This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
At the Caucus of Working Educators’ second annual convention on Nov. 14, Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences teacher Amy Roat was named as the group’s candidate to challenge Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, who has headed the union since 2007. Roat leads an insurgent slate of candidates who will challenge PFT leadership in the union’s elections in early 2016.
The other members on the Caucus’ slate are: Yaasiyn Muhammad, vice president; Peggy Savage, special vice president for elementary schools; Kelley Collings, special vice president for middle schools; Ismael Jimenez, special vice president for high schools; George Bezanis, legislative representative; Pamela Roy, treasurer; Eileen Duffey, recording secretary; and Tasha Russell, associate secretary.
The group, committed to social justice unionism, has been organizing since early 2014, focusing on issues such as educational and racial inequality, the school-to-prison pipeline, and testing.
Roat and Collings have been leaders of an “opt-out” campaign in Philadelphia to resist standardized testing. Roat, an ELL teacher, and Collings, a 6th-grade teacher, were among a group of activist teachers called the “Feltonville Six,” whose effort led to 20 percent of the school’s parents opting their children out of the PSSAs this year.
The caucus has patterned itself after similar movements that ousted established union leadership in such cities as Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Milwaukee. WE, as the group is referred to informally, claims about 300 members.
Roat called the movement “a freeing or a re-energizing of our union to create the schools our staff and our children deserve.”
Jordan, whose Collective Bargaining caucus has dominated the PFT leadership for decades, says that current union leadership has forcefully pursued social justice issues, fighting for contract provisions that insist on services like counselors that all students need.
During the WE conference, which was at the Old First Reformed United Church of Christ in Old City, about 200 members and supporters attended a daylong series of workshops on topics like organizing, using social media, and grassroots fundraising. They poured into the church’s main hall for a closing session that had the atmosphere of a pep rally.
“Do you feel like you’re ready to take over Philly?” shouted Tamara Anderson, whose daughter attends Hill-Freedman World Academy.
“I am sick of austerity. I am sick and tired of cuts that disproportionately affect Black and brown children. Status quo unionism has put the PFT to sleep,” said Muhammad, the vice presidential candidate and a history teacher at Central High School.
The group’s platform was also approved at the convention. Leaders said it had been drawn up after a listening tour that began in September.
Larissa Pahomov, an English teacher at Science Leadership Academy and a coordinator of the tour, said that almost 1,000 teachers and other personnel had given input through meetings at schools, restaurants, and other venues.
The group’s platform has five planks: fight for a strong contract; become a democratic, member-driven union; improve transparency and communication; fight for justice; and reclaim our status as professionals. For more information, see workingeducators.org.