As the issue of schools and funding dominates conversations in City Hall and Harrisburg, the powerful Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union — now headed by President Jerry Jordan — can boast a team of leaders with political connections that range from City Council to the American Federation of Teachers to the White House.
Yet a group of teachers from the Caucus of Working Educators, a sub-group of the PFT, has mobilized, running its own slate of leadership candidates after what they call years of failure to engage with the more than 11,000 rank-and-file members of the teachers’ union.
“Everything that you could list — leadership and connections — they have all of that,” said Larissa Pahomov, co-chair of the Caucus of Working Educators. “The one thing that we have that the PFT has not done is the authentic relationships, educator to educator, across Philadelphia.”
Jordan, who has been president of the PFT since 2008, and his administration actually belong to a caucus themselves called the Collective Bargaining Team that’s been in control since 1983. Now with more than 300 members, the Caucus of Working Educators, a dues-paying group founded in 2014, is the only other caucus in the PFT poised to launch a challenge.
Pahomov, 32, an English teacher at Science Leadership Academy, said the group’s goals include working to make the PFT more of a “member-driven” union as well as increasing transparency and communication, in some ways through better educating and engaging building representatives. It also plans to largely focus on smoothing racial inequalities in the school system and fighting standardized testing methods. The group, made up of both veterans and newbies to the public school system here in Philly, has selected a full slate of officials and has a platform largely based in “social justice unionism.”
Among the slate is the Caucus’ pick for president, Amy Roat, a middle school English teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, as well as Central High history teacher Yaasiyn Muhammad, Richmond Elementary fifth grade teacher, Peggy Savage, Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences math teacher Kelley Collings and Kensington CAPA history teacher Ismael Jimenez.
The current administration set the elections timeline for a vote that’ll take place next month — one that happens every four years. Ballots will be mailed out to members on Feb. 4, and voters will have until Feb. 24 to mail their ballots back to the PFT, at which point they’ll be tallied.
Jordan said the PFT is a “democratic organization” and that challenges happen from time-to-time. But he rejected the notion that he and his administration have failed to engage the rank-and-file members of the PFT, noting the work the group has done through protracted court battles over the teachers’ contract that was unilaterally canceled by the School Reform Commission back in August 2014.
“We are fighting on behalf of all members,” Jordan said. “If we did nothing, than the district would have been able to impose working conditions and benefits that they wanted and that they were thinking.”
So what are the odds control of one of Philly largest unions swings to this Caucus of Working Educators?
The group’s been doing outreach over the last several months, handing out fliers and reaching thousands of PFT members through email communications. They’ve held introductory forums attended by teachers and district employees interested in learning more.
But beyond that, there is some precedent for this sort of change in power in teachers’ unions by less politically-connected members pushing change in the name of “social justice.”
In 2010 in Chicago, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, took over leadership of what they called a “do-little” Chicago Teachers Union. At that point, the CORE group was just six years old and ran on a platform of reforming the union and how it engaged with its thousands of members. Two years later, it led the group on a nationally-covered strike supported by 90 percent of the union members.
Pahomov said unions in other cities have shown that moving beyond a the “service model” of teacher unionism is a national trend. What that means is getting more teachers energized to come to membership meetings and focusing on what they called “deep organization as opposed to shallow mobilization.” That starts with voting.
“From now until election time, the goal has always been to energize the rank-and-file, so any election work that we do is still with that goal in mind,” Pahomov said. “Do we want people to vote for us? Sure. But what matters is a more engaged rank-and-file.”