Philadelphia protesters fight for public schools’ future

By on August 29, 2013
Youths join teachers to demand better schools.Photo: Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

Youths join teachers to demand better schools.
Photo: Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

Despite thunder and rain on Aug. 22, a flood of red T-shirt-wearing protesters overtook Philadelphia’s Comcast Center, home to the world’s 49th largest corporation and majority-owner of NBCUniversal. Nearly 3,000 city teachers, members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, supported by hundreds of students, parents and community members, descended on the corporate home of Philadelphia’s elite. They demanded that a portion of Comcast’s $4 billion in profits go to the more than 130,000 children enrolled in the School District of Philadelphia.

School starts in two weeks, yet the District is still missing more than 3,500 employees, including all 127 assistant principals, 676 teachers, 283 counselors, 1,202 aides, 307 secretaries and 769 supportive service assistants. Twenty-four schools no longer exist. Even before the latest round of layoffs, budget cuts had devastated city schools. Eighty-six percent of nonteaching assistant positions were eliminated and 101 school nurses were laid off. There are now only 42 librarians for 249 schools, while only three out of four schools have a full-time music teacher.

The number of counselors, advisers and social service employees — before all were laid off this summer — had been cut in half in past years. Support services for children with disabilities and English language learners have also been faced with significant cutbacks and layoffs. (Fundphillyschools.org)

Yet on this day, marchers were hopeful. They left Comcast, passing City Hall and ending up at School District headquarters, while chanting, “I believe that we will win!” PFT President Jerry Jordan defiantly said, “Now that our schools are officially in crisis mode, it’s time for the city and state to meet their obligation to provide a quality public education for every child.” (pa.aft.org) He maintained that he would not accept any concessions in current contract negotiations. School District leaders and Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Corbett expect the PFT to give up $133 million in concessions.

Media escalate attacks on teachers’ union

The media have been relentless in their attacks against the 15,000-member teachers’ union and President Jordan. The Philadelphia Inquirer, the city’s ruling-class paper, has published numerous attack pieces, such as the Aug. 25 editorial entitled “Crisis Requires Union Action.” Its premise is: “The teachers’ union can’t portray itself as just as victimized as students. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has consistently refused to indicate any willingness to make concessions. So it has no one to blame but itself for the School Reform Commission’s decision to unilaterally take needed steps to address the crisis.”

The School Reform Commission, the unelected group that makes all School District decisions, recently suspended laid-off teachers’ seniority rights, as of Sept. 1, the day the union contract expires.

In a classic case of ruling class divide-and-conquer tactics, Philadelphia teachers have been portrayed as the problem, rather than Corbett, who has annually cut more than $1 billion for education; this includes reductions of more than $300 million from state contributions to Philadelphia schools.

Contract negotiations between the School District and the PFT are running out of time. The District is asking teachers to take a 15 percent pay cut with deep reductions in benefits and working conditions. The quality of education will undoubtedly suffer as teacher turnover jumps.

The attack on teachers is a coordinated assault on the country’s second-most unionized job. Thirty-seven percent of teachers are union members, second to government workers. Corbett and all the politicians who zealously seek to demolish the public sector also aim to destroy the power of labor unions, the largest and strongest organizations of the working class.

The state’s Republicans, faced with Corbett’s low approval rating, seek to stoke racist opposition to state support for Philadelphia’s School District, which includes 83 percent students of color. Corbett is basing much of his re-election campaign on destroying the PFT.

With days left before the end of the teachers’ contract, there has not even been a hint of a teachers’ strike. Yet, with time running out and no extra state or federal aid coming, a strike might help to save Philadelphia public schools. The challenge will be to build support from students and community members and from the rest of Philadelphia’s 150,000 union members.

The last major teacher’s strike started on Sept. 8, 1981. It involved 13,000 PFT members in a 50-day strike. They walked out because the District, with a deficit of $223 million, laid off 3,500 members and cancelled a scheduled 10 percent teachers’ pay increase. These numbers sound nearly identical to today’s situation.

What won the strike for the teachers was an act of solidarity by the other unions in the city, who — except for the police — threatened a general strike. The day of the general strike, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania ordered the rehiring of all who had been laid off and a negotiated pay increase by a state mediator.

This history of fighting back, as well as the heroic actions by the Chicago Teachers Union, needs to be on the minds of everyone who cares about education and the working class’s future. What happens in Philadelphia will set the standard for battling austerity across the country. n

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