This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Fresh off a successful six-day strike in January, Los Angeles teachers strategized Saturday with their Philadelphia counterparts, who will soon begin negotiations on a new contract. The Los Angeles teachers were in town for the fifth annual convention hosted by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ progressive caucus, called the Working Educators.
The caucus plans to present union leadership with contract demands of their own. They expect negotiations to begin this fall; the current contract expires at the end of August 2020.
The Working Educators are a sister caucus of the Union Power Caucus, which won leadership elections for the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) in 2014.
“Our strike in LA is part of the growing movement of educators standing up for our children and fighting back against the racism of public funding and privatization of education,” said Georgia Flowers Lee of UTLA. “We learned through our work in LA that when the community comes together with the union, we are unstoppable.”
Shira Cohen is a member of the Working Educators who helped organize the convention.
“We wanted to bring them here to tell their story and use that as a launching point for our contract campaign,” Cohen said in an interview, adding that UTLA began planning for their contract negotiations two years in advance. “Our members were able to talk about the issues they want to see raised in contract negotiations and how to build contract action teams in individual schools.
“In LA, they built power, because every school had a contract team that organized members in that building around the issues they wanted to raise.”
Much of the conversation centered on what Cohen called “common good” demands, which she said are “not just good for working conditions of educators, but for the needs of students and the entire community.”
This tactic helps build support for demands from the broader public and ultimately helps retain support during a strike. In the end, 98 percent of the LA union’s members voted to authorize a strike that retained widespread support from the city’s residents.
“Linking your contract demands to racial and economic justice makes for a stronger demand, because it becomes about fighting for the schools that we deserve – it’s not just about our jobs,” Cohen said. “In Los Angeles, it was so clear to everybody in that city, and across the country, that that strike was about the future of public education.
“It was not just about a particular bargaining unit or a particular issue. It was really about the future of our public schools. That came from an incredible vision.”
Cohen mentioned a host of common good demands that Philly teachers discussed at the convention: lower class size, more support services for students with disabilities and those learning English, a bigger focus on racial justice in the curriculum, money to repair the city’s deteriorating schools, and contract language that mandates the removal of mold, asbestos, and rodent infestations. The list was not exhaustive.
“We can fight for a fair contract, but we also have real conditions in our school buildings that have to improve,” Cohen said. “We have to be visionary about the contract demands that we make.”
After hearing from speakers, caucus members took to the streets, calling for an end to the city’s 10-year tax abatement on new construction, which was enacted in order to spur development. The schools lose $61 million each year to that abatement – the amount that the existing properties would be paying in taxes without it.
Protesters marched to a high-rise apartment complex that provides luxury student housing near Temple University in North Philadelphia. Without the abatement, that property would contribute $440,000 to the city’s schools every year.
They handed out flyers and asked pedestrians to call City Council President Darrell Clarke to demand that he schedule a hearing to publicly discuss ending the tax abatement. Real estate in Clarke’s Council district saves developers and property owners the most money through the abatement, accounting for about $20 million of the total in abated taxes.
The local property tax is the largest single source of local funding for the School District. The District receives 55 percent of what is collected, with the city getting the rest.
The caucus recently collected 3,300 signatures through a face-to-face petition drive, calling for city government and the school board to fund renovations necessary to remediate toxic conditions in the schools by ending the 10-year tax abatement. The caucus has delivered the petition to the school board and will deliver it to City Council on April 15 during budget hearings.
“Union members are a part of a national fight for the future of our public schools, and rank-and-file educators and community members and parents can be at the center of that fight,” Cohen said. “People are driven to organize by fighting for the schools that we all want.”