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Philadelphia teachers’ union president Jerry Jordan fends off challengers, but progressives make gains

Jordan’s slate, known as the Collective Bargaining Team, appeared to win 62% of the vote, with the early tally 4,453 votes for Jordan's team to 2,761 for the Caucus of Working Educators.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan.Read moreJonathan Wilson

Longtime teachers’ union president Jerry Jordan will hold on to his leadership post after fending off a challenge from an increasingly vocal and consequential caucus within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Organizing by the Caucus of Working Educators fueled strong turnout in the election, whose results were announced Wednesday.

» READ MORE: Read more: The Caucus of Working Educators' bid to seize control of the PFT

The results are especially weighty given the PFT’s outsized role in the city’s political landscape. The union plays a crucial oversight role in the Philadelphia School District’s unfolding asbestos crisis, and it is negotiating the first contract since the union won back the right to strike with the district returning to local control in 2018.

Jordan’s slate, known as the Collective Bargaining Team, appeared to win 62% of the vote, with the early tally 4,453 to 2,761. Split-ticket votes have not yet been counted, but the early results made clear that most of the union’s 13,000 members favored Jordan’s steady hand, track record, and collaborative working style.

Jordan, who has led the PFT since 2007 and has worked for the union full time since 1987, said he was “delighted” by the results, which came on his 71st birthday.

"Our nearly 13,000 members are passionate, dedicated, and engaged, and working with them daily is one of the great honors of my life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The campaign was spirited, and it allowed us the opportunity to organize around a vision for public education that resonated with our membership.”

Nearly 60% of the PFT’s 13,000 teachers, counselors, nurses, secretaries, and paraprofessional workers cast ballots, up from 46% in 2016, the first time WE opposed Jordan’s leadership.

The Caucus of Working Educators, whose slate was topped by Kathleen Melville, a teacher at the Workshop School, a high school in West Philadelphia, made a stronger showing than it did in 2016, the last time it challenged Jordan’s leadership.

» READ MORE: Read more: With salaries capped at $30k, Philly's paraprofessionals are demanding more

The progressive group’s platform centered on empowering PFT members to have more of a say in the operation of their union, and on holding open contract negotiations with the district. It promised to fight for higher wages for paraprofessionals, better environmental conditions, and smaller class sizes. WE members have criticized the current PFT regime as too bureaucratic and slow to respond to members’ concerns, and not active enough on issues of social justice.

WE, part of a wave of young people turning to organized labor as a way to make change, comes out of a tradition of the rank-and-file educators who have taken over unions in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Baltimore. These are cities where union leaders have taken their members on massive, high-profile strikes — with significant public support — that reminded the country that unions are still a force to be reckoned with.

The Caucus of Working Educators’ campaign is part of a trend of rank-and-file challenges to the union establishment, as legacy unions have languished around the country. Union members — from journalists to UPS package handlers to truck drivers — have challenged veteran leadership, which they accuse of being too complacent and too cozy with management to fight for workers.

Melville, 37, congratulated Jordan and his team and said in a statement that WE looked forward “to continuing to push for a more engaged and empowered PFT membership together.”

The caucus’ stronger showing, she said, made it plain that “Working Educators’ vision has resonated with thousands of educators across the city."

Jordan, in an interview, said WE’s campaign “was a very serious challenge," but said that its platform “was very similar to the platform my caucus had” — focused on working conditions and meaningful wage increases.

WE members’ views will certainly have a place during negotiations, said Jordan, adding that so far only a few bargaining sessions have been held. The PFT president expects that the pace of talks will now accelerate.

So far, Jordan said, the talks have been “very professional.”