The education world has its eye on Los Angeles this week, where about 30,000 school staff members have gone on strike.
The issues at stake in LA — charter growth, class size, teacher pay, lack of support staff including nurses — will sound familiar to those who’ve followed years of clashes between the School District of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. They sure sound familiar to longtime PFT head Jerry Jordan.
“What happens in LA is going to happen across the country,” said Jordan. “Things don’t just occur in one urban setting and stop there.”
It’s impossible to say if Philly teachers will someday follow in the footsteps of their West Coast counterparts.
But the educational earthquake in California is a reminder that Philadelphia school staff now have the option of striking, an option they didn’t have for years.
During the 17-year reign of the state-controlled School Reform Commission, state law forbade Philadelphia teachers, and Philadelphia teachers alone, from striking.
When the SRC dissolved last year, so did the prohibition against striking.
The new board of education won’t have to worry immediately about the prospect of a teachers strike in Philadelphia. About a year before it ceded control to a locally appointed school board, the SRC signed a new labor pact with the PFT that expires in September of 2020.
Before that historic agreement, though, PFT members went four years without a contract. It was a grinding stalemate, bracketed by the fact that teachers couldn’t strike and the SRC couldn’t override the terms of the expired labor pact. With neither side able to establish much leverage, Philadelphia teachers received no pay raises and the district received increasing public scrutiny.
If district and union officials find themselves at loggerheads when the next PFT contract expires, union leaders will have the strike option in their negotiation quiver. That could spark labor unrest, but Jordan thinks it could also speed along negotiations.
“I remember the days when Aug. 31 meant a settlement or a strike,” Jordan said. “Guess what? People thought through clearly what was at stake and there were settlements.”
That wasn’t true when Pennsylvania teachers first won the ability to strike.
State law legalized teacher strikes in 1969, and over the next dozen years, there were five work stoppages in Philadelphia. A 1981 teacher strike lasted 50 days and only ended when a court order reversed district layoff notices.
Philadelphia teachers haven’t struck since then, although there have been threats of a walkout, including one shortly before the SRC took control of city schools.
Since the last Philadelphia strike, Pennsylvania law has made it more difficult for teachers to walk out. Act 88, passed in 1992, requires districts and unions to enter arbitration if a strike threatens to prevent a district from holding the state-mandated 180 days of school. Once that arbitration hearing begins, teachers have to return to work. The law effectively makes it difficult for teacher strikes to last more than a week or two.
Right now, though, the focus is on Los Angeles.
S/o to PFT members at Kirkbride, Bethune, Mitchell and all of the other #UTLAStrong educators in Philly. More pics here: https://t.co/dZrbMYBbrX @UTLAnow @AFTunion @AFTPA #RedForEd pic.twitter.com/ZjqHsy3XDs
— PFT (@PFTLocal3) January 14, 2019
On Twitter and on its website, the PFT has posted messages backing the strike and published pictures of members wearing union red in symbolic unity with Los Angeles teachers.
The Caucus of Working Educators, an activist wing within the PFT, has started a GoFundMe to support teachers from one LA school as they walk the picket line.
Closer to home, the PFT is surveying its members to see what issues they’ll push for in the next round of contract negotiations. And those negotiations will begin fairly soon. Jordan expects to sit down with district officials sometime this fall.