The battle of Philadelphia students and teachers has intensified in the wake of the shocking Oct. 6 School Reform Commission decision to cancel its collective bargaining agreement with Philadelphia public school teachers.
The largest rally so far in the 15-year-long battle for education funding took place on Oct. 16, in the midst of talk of a general strike. Some 85 percent of all students in Philadelphia’s school district are people of color, and 87 percent are classified as “economically disadvantaged.”
Over 3,000 students, parents and members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and many other unions shut down Broad Street outside the school district headquarters. Afterwards, angry activists disrupted a SRC meeting, chanting and shouting down pro-business speakers.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers lawyers filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court on Oct. 17 to prevent the school district and the SRC from instituting health care changes which would cost each teacher thousands of dollars. The union also filed a legal brief before Commonwealth Court saying the matter belongs not in that court, but in the Court of Common Pleas, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board or a labor arbiter. They also filed a motion for an expeditious hearing before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, challenging the unilateral changes made by the SRC and its bad-faith bargaining practices.
Considering a general strike
Over 50 area labor leaders signed an Oct. 16 letter condemning the SRC’s “effective destruction of collective bargaining.” The public letter was released following meetings on Oct. 9 and Oct. 12 in which Philadelphia labor officials debated whether to ask members of all area unions — laborers, electricians, communications workers, janitors, nurses, bus drivers, city employees — to walk off their jobs in protest of the SRC’s anti-labor actions. (Read the entire letter at tinyurl.com/pyaxfrc)
Jerry Jordan, the PFT president, told the closed door gathering that he wanted to exhaust legal remedies first. Other union officials wanted to wait until after the Nov. 4 gubernatorial election. Most local union officials have pinned their hopes on Democratic Party candidate Tom Wolf, who says he supports returning Philadelphia’s schools to local control.
Even if Wolf is voted in, as expected, adequate funding for Philadelphia’s students still faces huge hurdles. Besides a corporate-friendly state Senate and House, this city’s Democratic mayor and city council have failed to stop massive state cuts in education funding, dozens of school closures, the transfer of 30 percent of students and resources to charter schools, thousands of school layoffs and the deaths of two students directly related to the elimination of school nurses. The necessity for mass rallies and direct action such as a general strike will unquestionably continue into 2015.
When Henry Nicholas, president of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, raised the need for a general strike at the huge Oct. 16 rally, the crowd responded loudly with applause and chants. Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Richard W. Bloomingdale announced: “A city-wide strike [is] still on the table. … We have to take this moment and turn it into a movement.” (tinyurl.com/n6ljseb)
The question of the day is whether school staff employees, teachers, students and parents, and other city workers (organized and unorganized) can persuade fellow workers and any labor officials who may be reluctant, that the time for a general strike is now.
History of General Strikes
Philadelphia was the site of the first general strike in U.S. history in 1835. Begun by 300 longshore workers, they were quickly joined by 20,000 leather dressers, printers, carpenters, bricklayers, masons, house painters, bakers and others. Workers’ demands included wage increases and a shorter workday, as well as increased wages for women workers and a boycott of any coal merchant who pressured workers to work more than ten hours a day. When city public works employees joined the strike the city agreed to a ten-hour work day. The factory owners of Philadelphia followed suit. The success of the strike inspired workers in other cities to strike against the 12-hour-day and the 10-hour-day soon became the standard nationwide until the struggle for the 8-hour-day erupted in the late 1880s.
Another general strike in Philadelphia was organized in 1903 by textile workers. Demands included reducing the workweek to 55 hours and the elimination of child labor. Renowned labor leader Mother Jones increased support for the strike by leading a children’s march from Philadelphia’s City Hall to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, New York City, but the strike by over 100,000 workers eventually failed to sway the wealthiest 1% then. A federal child labor law was not upheld by the Supreme Court until 1941. And that law continues to allow child labor in the agricultural industry to this very day.
In 1910, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit trolley company fired 173 workers — all members of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America — and replaced them with scabs from New York City. For 57 days, workers battled in the streets, organizing demonstrations and a general strike before forcing the PRT to the bargaining table.
In 1981, in the longest strike in PFT history, a 51-day conflict was resolved only after the Philadelphia Central Labor Council threatened a general strike. The added leverage was successful in forcing the district to cut back its list of concession demands.
Contrary to the claims of the mainstream press since then, the PFT’s contracts are not responsible for school funding shortfalls. Globalization’s severe reduction of working-class wages, racist government housing policies, unending war spending, and cuts in taxes for corporations and the wealthy — these have been among the most important factors leading to school funding shortfalls. The culprits are city, state and federal administrators who refuse to challenge these capitalist policies — not workers fighting for wages and benefits.
During the 1998 Transit Workers Union Local 234 strike — the seventh work stoppage since 1975 — South East Pennsylvania Transit Authority executives threatened to hire scab replacements. In response, the Philadelphia AFL-CIO pledged to call a general strike and organize a march of a million labor unionists if scabs took over strikers’ jobs. SEPTA officials quickly responded that those plans had been “postponed indefinitely.” Dozens of rallies and roaming picket lines were organized over the 40-day strike, which ended in victory for the transit workers. (tinyurl.com/pb6emwc)
Underfunding has denied the right to an education to the children of tens of thousands of Philadelphia’s workers. History has shown that the use of a general strike can be an effective tool in the battle against those in power.