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Educators challenging union leadership

A group of city educators who think their union has grown complacent and needs challenging is making a run at the leadership of the powerful Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

A group of city educators who think their union has grown complacent and needs challenging is making a run at the leadership of the powerful Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

The Caucus of Working Educators, a grassroots group of about 500 school staffers and others, said it has tried to effect change - more contact with members, better organization of the union's 11,000-plus members, a stronger focus on social justice - from the inside.

"But we just felt like we were hitting our head against a brick wall," said Kelley Collings, a teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences who is running for a vice president position. "The same bureaucratic wet blanket was thrown over everything."

The Working Educators opposes the Collective Bargaining Team, headed by current PFT president Jerry Jordan, a union staffer since 1987 and chief since 2007. The CB slate has been in charge of the union since 1983.

Ballots are due Tuesday; results from the most significant challenge to CB team leadership in years will be announced Wednesday. The winners will lead the union for the next four years.

Leaders of WE, as it is known, say that Jordan and his team have come to emulate the district they often oppose, that they are out of touch and slow to act.

"PFT members are kept in the dark quite often," said Yaasiyn Muhammad, a Central High teacher and candidate for another vice presidential position. "Interactions with leadership are few and far between."

WE points out that under CB's leadership, the union has lost several thousand members and for three years, teachers have worked without a contract or raises.

"Now, we're continuing the hemorrhaging," said Amy Roat, another Feltonville Arts and Sciences teacher and WE's candidate for president. "I don't see that stopping without serious, serious action."

WE, which was formed two years ago, draws inspiration from activist unions in Chicago and elsewhere, and aims, its leaders say, to reenvision what a 21st-century federation ought to look like.

It must demand changes not just around salary, benefits, and school conditions, but also actively work against things like racism, gentrification, and standardized testing, WE members say.

"We have the largest public-sector union in the city, and we're asleep," Muhammad said. "We're not fighting the way we could and should be."

That's a claim that CB rejects vehemently.

"It's an insult to say that the membership is a sleeping giant," said Wendy Coleman, a current union staffer running for associate secretary on the CB slate. "Our members do rise to the occasion."

Coleman, who was until three years ago a teacher at Carnell Elementary, also scoffed at the notion that the incumbent PFT leadership was not focused on social justice.

"This union was working on that before it was a term," Coleman said.

Though PFT members have worked without a contract for years, the CB team also has successfully waged legal battles and managed to stave off the major concessions the Philadelphia School District has won from its other unions.

"There are issues that we're able to resolve immediately, and there are those that last many years," Jordan said.

The union also played key roles in the elections of Gov. Wolf, Mayor Kenney, and City Councilwoman Helen Gym. On the day Wolf trounced Gov. Tom Corbett, PFT mobilized 2,000 members to drum up support for the Democrat.

WE has painted Jordan, in particular, as being out of touch with the members, proposing that if elected, some of its leadership team would remain in the classroom. But that fails to take into account what's needed to lead a large labor union, said Hillary Linardopoulos, a PFT staffer running for legislative representative.

"Experience matters," said Linardopoulos, who until three years ago was a classroom teacher at DeBurgos Elementary. ""We can demand all we want, but we have to have strategy, and we have to have the skill behind it."

The CB team has collected scores of support - not formal endorsements, but warm words released publicly - from City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, State Senator Vincent Hughes, and Gym, whose candidacy received an early boost from PFT support.

Jordan and his team "have consistently shown strong leadership," Clarke said in a statement. "At a time when ideologues in government have sought to weaken public education, Jerry has been a fighter for the people who staff our schools and teacher our children every day - even in deplorable and unsafe conditions."