Philadelphia teachers union blasts reform commission

PFT members show their true colors at District rally.

Stacia Friedman | Watchdog.org

PHILADELPHIA — Jerry Jordan had his union members exactly where he wanted them — in front of the Philadelphia School District headquarters, blocking the city’s major artery during rush hour Thursday.

Jordan stood on a platform and looked out over a sea of 2,000 or more Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union members wearing red shirts, waving signs, holding banners. The air was electric. One week earlier, the School Reform Commission had cut their health benefits. Now they were pushing back, and Jordan knew exactly which buttons to push.

“Vote,” said Jordan, the union’s president. “Tell everyone you know to vote. And you know who to vote for!” Thousands of voices screamed back, “Tom Wolf!”

For every “Vote for Tom Wolf” sign, there was a PFT member holding a “Crush Corbett” sign.

PFT member wears her politics on her back.

The rally was supposedly a response to the recent decision by the state-appointed SRC, which runs the School District of Philadelphia, to unilaterally toss some parts of its contract with the PFT. But it had a distinctly political air, with the gubernatorial election — a contest between Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and Democratic challenger Tom Wolf — only weeks away and Democrats hoping for big turnout from Philadelphia union types.

Teachers were joined by several other unions on the streets Thursday night, including members of the UFCW Local 1776 — which has clashed with Corbett over the privatization of state liquor stores. The union’s website calls SRC’s decision a “direct attack on collective bargaining.”

Others included the AFL-CIO, IBEW Local 98, Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 634, Workers United and Gas Workers Local 686. Many held signs proclaiming, “General Strike.”

The showdown between the union and the SRC goes back several years. With the district in financial dire straits, the two sides have been unable to agree to a new contract. The SRC has sought major concessions from the PFT as a cost-saving measure, as budget issues have resulted in closed schools and thousands of employees laid off.

The PFT has resisted most concessions, instead calling for new taxes to fund the gap, including taxes on the University of Pennsylvania and natural gas drillers.

Financial realities

Former district interim CEO Phil Goldsmith said teachers need to realize they’ll need to shoulder some of the financial load.

“The PFT has been very slow to adapt to today’s realities,” he said. “The SRC has managed to achieve two things that had to be done. One, closing down schools. Two, getting tough with the union.”

It reached a boiling point last week, when the SRC canceled parts of the existing contract and announced that teachers would have to pay a portion of their salary toward the cost of health benefits.

“The fiscal stability created by these benefit changes will lessen the dire circumstances facing our teachers and students every day,” said Superintendent William R. Hite. “We cannot further reduce central office and school budgets and continue to function.”

Mayor Michael Nutter agrees.

“I think the action is indicative of the dire circumstances, the tragedy of what’s going on in the classroom,” Nutter said at a press conference last week. “There’s no more money to be had from anywhere.”

Since 2009, the city’s share of district funding has increased by more than $357 million. Local funding, once responsible for just 36 percent of the district’s overall budget, now makes up 47 percent.

The teachers at Thursday’s rally said they felt as if they’d already given enough.

Nicoleta Tataru, a math teacher at Northeast High School, argued that she “gave the SRC $6,508 to fix the budget by giving up a raise. Now they want $8,139, which is the cost of health insurance for my family this year. It’s robbery.”

Tataru was referring to the PFT’s 11-step salary program that gives teachers a pay increase for degrees attained and length of service. This is the third consecutive year PFT members haven’t received raises.

The SRC maintains teachers will have to pay between $70 and $200 for health coverage each month. Jordan claims the figure will be more than $600 per month.

Erin Giorgio, a teacher at Science Leadership Academy, said she worried “if the city and state don’t invest in education, people are going to leave the city.” Giorgio attended the rally with her nearly 5-month-old son, Everett, strapped to her chest. He was one of hundreds of children brought to the rally.

Heated meeting

PA Watchdog Photo

Teacher Erin Giorgio with her infant son and an unidentified union member.

At 6 p.m., under the watchful eyes of armed security guards and police, the crowd filtered into district headquarters, filling up the meeting room. The overflow watched the meeting on a video screen in the lobby.

“It is a lie to say we are unwilling to negotiate,” Jordan told the SRC. “We’ve heard nothing from you since July 1. You choose to balance the budget on the backs of district educators — the very people you can’t do without.”

He accused the SRC of “using a budget crisis to silence our voices.”

More than 62 speakers had signed up to make statements. Rosemarie Hatcher, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, exhorted the SRC to “come back to the bargaining table. Stop the politics.”

Although the audience cheered each person who championed the teachers union, they loudly shouted down anyone who spoke on behalf of the SRC. That included Roberta Trombetta, CEO of Aris Academy Charter School, and Sylvia Simms, the SRC’s parent representative.

Simms had arranged a screening the previous evening of “Won’t Back Down.” The film, produced by conservative businessman Philip Anschutz, has a strong anti-union message. Students attempted to protest the screening. Simms turned them away. She was booed off the podium.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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