On a dreary school night in November, the sanctuary of a North Philadelphia church was coursing with energy.
Two hundred educators were cheering for their colleagues — classroom assistants, bilingual counselors, veteran elementary school teachers — who had taken the stage to sell their vision for public education in the poorest big city in America:
“My question is, are you ready for a strong union?” asked Leah Wood, a classroom assistant at Feltonville Arts & Sciences.
“Yes!” they yelled back.
But first, this faction of Philly educators, these labor activists with a militant spirit, have to win their union election in February. If they do, once the contract expires at the end of the summer, there’s a strong chance that the city could see its 13,000 educators going on strike for the first time since the 1980s.
It’s why Kathleen Melville, a teacher who is running for president on the challenger slate, told the crowd that night in the North Philly church: “There is nothing that this School District is more afraid of than us winning this election."
Union elections are normally sleepy affairs. Not this one.
This is the Caucus of Working Educators’ (WE) second attempt at unseating the leadership of the biggest labor union in the city, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). The incumbents, known as Collective Bargaining, have been in power since the 1980s, surviving through such dire situations as the layoffs of thousands of workers and a school district governing body that tried to cancel the union’s contract, all during a time when teachers’ unions were successfully painted as selfish and greedy.
The insurgents, part of a wave of young people turning to organized labor as a way to make change, fashion themselves in the 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.
WE leaders won’t say they’re planning on a strike should they win the election. Instead, they say it’s their goal to make union members feel confident in making that decision if the time comes — something WE believes isn’t the case right now.
“If our union leadership said at the bargaining table, ‘We really need to see smaller class sizes or we’ll go on strike,’ I think the district would laugh at us,” Melville, 37, said in an interview.
While the story of the Philadelphia teachers union election -- with progressive challengers shaking up the establishment -- is becoming increasingly common, there’s a larger question at play, one that cuts at the future of the labor movement: How do you reenergize a legacy union?
It was clear that night in North Philly at the campaign launch that WE had tapped into the cynicism, apathy, and anger that some workers felt for their union.
Wood, the “paraprofessional” classroom assistant, told the crowd she was representing “the many pissed off ‘paras’ who feel like our union kicked us to the side like a broken toy."
Elementary school teacher Cristina Gutiérrez, an 18-year veteran of the school district, said she got involved with WE because the union had let her down in a time of need. “Emails were not answered, calls were not returned," she said, “and that was enough for me to take it upon myself to make a change.”
In speeches and smaller discussion groups, the list of grievances went on: They were tired of the “stifling, top-down leadership,” they wanted the contract to be enforced better, they wanted less asking — more demanding.
“Even though we’re the largest union in the city," said middle school social studies teacher Paul Prescod, “I swear we’re one of the weakest."
WE’s leaders, like their counterparts in other cities, say they’ll transform the teachers union by focusing on “high-participation unionism,” organizing members to take ownership of the union rather than treating it like a service provider that files grievances and negotiates contracts on their behalf.
Teachers union president Jerry Jordan and his supporters dismiss WE as naive, inexperienced, and far too eager to go on strike. They might be savvy at messaging and riling up a crowd, they say, but could they run a multimillion dollar health and welfare fund for 13,000 members?
“I laugh when I hear about them and see their pictures,” said Ted Kirsch, Jordan’s predecessor who retired this year as president of the American Federation of Teachers-Pennsylvania.
There was always opposition to leadership, Kirsch said, they just didn’t have T-shirts, as WE does.
The incumbents rebut the narrative that members are disengaged. They cite participation levels in a series of public meetings for members to suggest contract proposals, as well as in the union’s political program. The PFT played a major role in electing Councilmember Helen Gym in 2015 when she was an outsider candidate.
Sharahn “Sha" Santana, a teacher at Parkway Northwest High School and an elected union representative at her school, said she couldn’t think of anything tangible that WE had accomplished. Jordan, on the other hand, had successfully negotiated a contract in 2017 after four years of gridlock.
It’s perhaps the best illustration of the differences in approach between Jordan and his challengers.
Back then, instead of taking his members out on a wildcat strike, Jordan took the legal route. The court’s decision was appealed all the way up to the State Supreme Court, which in 2016 upheld the decision that the SRC could not impose contract terms on the union. That set the stage, Jordan said, for the SRC to come back to the bargaining table and eventually reach a deal with the union.
“Inexperience,” he said, “would’ve caused me to say, ‘Yes, we’re taking everybody on strike.’ But had we gone out on strike, it would’ve given the SRC exactly what they wanted.”
That is, the power to impose contract terms on the union, which Jordan says it would have done if the union had broken the law by going on strike. Now that the SRC has been abolished and the school district is under local control, the PFT is legally allowed to strike. On the topic of a strike, Jordan says, “If we have to, then we will.”
Compared with the incumbents’ tempered, risk-averse strategy that relies on the decisions of elected officials or those appointed by them, WE favors a more militant tack: They couldn’t have revoked our teaching licenses, they say, if all 13,000 of us stood together. And, WE will remind you that it was illegal for teachers in West Virginia to go on strike and look what they accomplished — a 5% raise for workers who don’t even have collective bargaining rights.
The rise of a more radical faction within the PFT mirrors a tension in broader organized labor today.
To the chagrin of a new class of union activists, the labor establishment, symbolized in the leadership of the AFL-CIO, has focused more on political work than on new organizing. The establishment, critics say, has tended to ask “How do we protect what we’ve won?” rather than “What else can we win?”
There are hints, though, of a power shift in labor, and in Philadelphia, a victory for the new-school tactics of WE could send ripples throughout the city’s still, largely traditional labor movement.
WE, which was formed in 2014, challenged Jordan’s team in 2016 and lost, garnering fewer than a third of the votes. In that election, fewer than half of the PFT’s then-11,000 members voted.
It’s hard to measure WE’s reach: The organization won’t disclose how many dues-paying members it has, saying that it’s not an accurate depiction of the membership because it doesn’t push for members to pay WE dues. It got 2,600 PFT members to sign a petition last spring decrying the unsafe building conditions of Philly schools. And it has engaged some of the District’s 2,000 low-paid paraprofessionals, many of whom are frustrated about their wages.
The district declined to make Superintendent William Hite available for an interview.
Even if WE doesn’t win, its challenge to leadership, as well as those in other established unions, shows that unions must change their ways if they’re going to survive, said Sarah Lawrence College labor historian Priscilla Murolo It’s especially pressing in public education: Despite increases to education funding in Pennsylvania, costs are outpacing those increases for many school districts across the state, and the burden is even more challenging for districts that are less wealthy, like Philadelphia.
“Nobody is going to complain if the union enforces the contract," she said, “but it’s like sizzling when Rome is burning."
This story has been changed because a previous version mischaracterized changes in public education funding. Education funding has increased over the last decade in Pennsylvania, but costs have outpaced those increases in many school districts across the state.