Public school teachers in Philadelphia are in the middle of a quiet insurrection against their union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). During a mail-in union election that runs Feb. 6-25, a group of frustrated educators is trying to oust and replace longtime PFT leaders. They have even won the endorsement of a former PFT president.
History teacher Adam Sanchez explained why the challengers, who formed in 2014 and are called the Caucus of Working Educators (WE), have gained momentum:
(WE)…has fought tirelessly against school closures, toxic building conditions, excessive paperwork, and bullying principals while championing the return of local control and progressive tax policies. In 2017, WE’s racial justice committee spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action, which now takes place in more than 30 cities.
(In February) teachers will vote on who they want to lead the PFT. Coming into the district, I was introduced to members of WE who came to the District’s new-hire orientation. Within weeks, I was organizing with others in my building. Our school is divided, and many support the reigning caucus — the Collective Bargaining Team (CB). That team has led the PFT for the last 30 years and — according to many veteran Philly teachers I’ve met — has operated as a textbook case of “business unionism.”
Education professor and union activist Lois Weiner describes this model as one in which union leadership, instead of prioritizing organizing, sees its role as providing services such as benefits from a welfare fund, pensions, contract negotiations, and grievance support. Members are passive except for voting on a contract and electing officers; the organization “runs on the assumption that paid officials know the best about everything. They’re supposedly the ‘experts.’”
Notice Sanchez’ frustration about losing local control and having to submit to a “status quo” corporate union that doesn’t address teachers’ changing needs. This is an epidemic of dissatisfaction we’ve noted across the country in all types of school districts, regardless of teachers’ political leanings. It’s happening in urban school districts like Philadelphia, where educators trend more progressive, and in suburban or rural districts, where educators trend more conservative or independent.
At Free to Teach, we have long argued that diverse teachers are increasingly unhappy with the established state and national unions—the NEA and AFT. For example, locals across the country have been quietly disaffiliating from the NEA for the last several years, including ones we’ve profiled in Memphis, Tenn. and Cincinnati, Ohio.
That’s why we think independent locals are an ideal option for most educational settings. As such, we’ll be watching the Philadelphia union election closely.