This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Caucus of Working Educators appeared in headlines during February when it ran against the incumbent leadership of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. It was the first time since 1992 that the leadership was challenged by a full slate of 35 educators running for all the contested positions.
Although they lost the election, with 30 percent of the vote, members of the WE caucus say it is not going away. The group is determined to change the way that the PFT does business, mobilize more rank-and-file teachers, and focus more visibly on social and racial justice issues.
The caucus is a member of UCORE, a network of 20 locals and caucuses within both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
UCORE’s members consider themselves social justice unionists working to create more equitable school districts, and, as Michael Gunderson wrote in Labor Notes, “keep public schools in the hands of communities rather than private enterprises.”
The caucus formed in 2014 with about 30 members seeking a more engaged union.
Larissa Pahomov, an organizer with the caucus and an English teacher at Science Leadership Academy, was part of the original group of 30 educators.
“I got involved because I was a core member of Teacher Action Group,” Pahomov said. Many of the members came from other teacher networks, such as Teachers Lead Philly, a network devoted to engaging teachers in shaping educational policy through public advocacy, and Need in Deed, an organization that trains educators to prepare students for the civic responsibilities of adulthood.
Dan Symonds, a first-year teacher at Munoz-Marin, a K-8 school in North Philadelphia, first read about the caucus as a student teacher at School of the Future. “I wanted to be involved with an organization that’s trying to do something about the austerity in the District,” Symonds said.
The caucus is committed to creating a stronger union through activism, community organizing, and strengthening the traditional union infrastructure, which they see as inadequate. Caucus organizers’ criticism of union leadership focused on a lack of activism and the perception that the PFT makes too little effort to get its members involved.
“There are over 200 public schools in the District,” Pahomov said, “and they’re so close to each other geographically and yet they’re all their own unique little island.”
Pahomov said the central PFT union office can feel like one of those islands, “where something’s going on but [teachers] don’t necessarily know what. That’s a part of why we formed, to create a strong channel for that communication.”
Although the election campaign caused the caucus to “grow exponentially,” Pahomov said, now the focus is on the future.
The group created a dozen different committees that range from racial justice to statewide political organizing. “There’s also communications, research, and a specific school organizing group that reaches out to different schools,” Pahomov said. Although the committees are in their “infancy,” they convene monthly to discuss their process and progress.
One cause that many members are adopting is the so-called opt-out movement. They created a toolkit for advising parents on their rights to opt out their children from high-stakes standardized tests, which many educators believe cut into learning time and put undue stress on students.
“It’s something that a lot of our supporting members — retired teachers and parents — are really taking the lead on,” Pahomov said.
The caucus also is working to ensure that the standard union infrastructure – a building rep and a building committee – exists in every school. Pahomov said that during the election campaign, they found some schools that “have no PFT structure."
The caucus’s Targeted School Organizing Committee will reach out to these schools, said Pahamov, “as well as schools that are potential targets for turnaround or charterization.”
They also organized a series of “building power” trainings on weekends for current building reps and committee members, as well as teachers who would like to be nominated for those positions.
The caucus plans to hold an organizing institute this summer to train a network of educator activists in the basics of grassroots activism. The program, though shorter and voluntary, is modeled after one held by the Chicago Teachers Union.
Challenging complacent leadership
Organizers express a desire to reform the way the union functions, but they emphasize that their complaints are not with what the union is doing, but with what the union is not doing.
Now members do “what our leadership asks of us,” said Pahomov. But WE is “not just sitting idly by and waiting for the next marching orders.”
For instance, she said, when the School Reform Commission tried to unilaterally cancel the contract and change health benefits to free up money for school programs, the PFT held a rally outside District headquarters.
“It later came out in the news that other unions had offered to do a general strike in Philadelphia — the electricians’ union, among others — but Jerry Jordan said ‘no, thanks.’”
At the time, Jordan said he wanted to “exhaust legal remedies first.”
Pahomov and Symonds said that attendance at PFT membership meetings is low — about 200 out of more than 11,000 members.
“The lack of participation speaks to a real sense of defeat,” said Symonds, who has attended every PFT membership meeting since becoming a member.
Pahomov said that the PFT communicates with members mostly via email, but “what gets people to turn out” is “one-to-one conversations and relationships at the building level.”
The PFT dismissed the criticism. “We do everything we can to let members know well in advance,” about meetings, said PFT communications director George Jackson. “Anyone who wants to encourage people in their building to get attendance up, we certainly encourage that.”
Although the union’s bylaws require at least six membership meetings yearly, Pahomov said that about three is typical.
In 2014-15, the PFT held four membership meetings, but only one involved union leadership getting feedback from rank-and-file members. The three others were candidate forums, Pahomov said.
“I’m not trying to malign the union, of which I’m a member,” said Symonds, “but it’s as good a time as any to realize we could do a lot better, and we need to.”
So far this year, the union has held three membership meetings – in September, March, and April. Jackson said the PFT plans to hold a fourth meeting in May.
Pahomov thinks that what makes the caucus so valuable is that protesting and organizing not only show solidarity, but connect PFT members directly with each other across their buildings. Symonds noted that teachers have been working without raises and under the terms of an expired contract for nearly four years.
“Some people get burnt out and leave, but I take it on myself that we can’t just sit around and hope that things will get better,” Symonds said about his activism. “I have no choice but to fight against a district that doesn’t respect my students, and a state government that thinks my kids don’t matter.”
Act 46, the same law that created the SRC and gave the state control over the District, prohibits Philadelphia teachers from going on strike. But there are other things that can be done to protest poor conditions and contract violations, Symonds said.
“Our contract is frozen, but it’s still in place. It’s trampled on every day,” said Symonds. “I know schools where people aren’t given their contractual lunch minimum. I know schools where teachers are made to teach classes they’re not certified for. … I run detention after school. That should be staffed by someone else, but it’s not.”
Work to Rule campaign
Pahomov said the PFT leadership has been reluctant to organize actions that are not prohibited by Act 46.
Last summer, in response to the lack of a contract, the caucus proposed a Work to Rule campaign, during which educators don’t engage in any activities they are not strictly required to do under the contract.
"In my school, instead of [teachers] showing up an hour early to run the breakfast programs, we would make sure that was taken care of by parents,” Symonds said. “By doing less work for a little while, you can put more pressure on district managers to staff the schools at the levels they need.”
The caucus proposed a five-month organizing effort leading up to a district-wide mass action. But the PFT announced the mass action just days before it began at a membership meeting without any training or attempt to get feedback or contact families. It also did not require schools to participate and ignored WE’s suggestions to involve other unions, Pahomov said.
Ultimately, the PFT said that 180 schools had participated, but WE leaders said that only 19 schools had a well-organized protest that actually informed and involved their school communities.
“I didn’t want for it to be something that would do any harm in educational programming for kids,” PFT president Jordan said about his reasoning for not adopting the full campaign.
The caucus’s website described the discrepancy between the proposed campaign and the one the PFT adopted as “the difference between deep organizing and shallow mobilizing … anything less than [deep organizing] does a disservice to our students and our schools.”
The caucus members are primarily motivated by the inequality of opportunities for students in Philadelphia and the inadequate services and materials that teachers deal with every day. As with most other issues in the District, it comes down to resources.
Symonds rejects the notion that there isn’t enough money.
“There is, of course, money to fund public schools. This is the wealthiest country in the world. No PowerPoint presentation can change that,” Symonds said. “It’s our job as a union, as a city, as educators, as people who care about children to insist that our schools are funded at the levels they need to be.”