Leadership of Philly teachers’ union wins re-election despite growing challenge from activists

 A member of the Philadelphia teachers union hands in a ballot in 2017 at Temple University's Liacouras Center as the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers voted on a contract proposal. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

A member of the Philadelphia teachers union hands in a ballot in 2017 at Temple University's Liacouras Center as the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers voted on a contract proposal. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Updated 6:11 p.m.

The incumbent powers of Philadelphia’s teachers’ union survived a challenge Wednesday from a group that advocated for a more open and aggressive approach to contract bargaining.

While the election results won’t prompt a leadership shakeup at the nearly 13,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), they suggest that more staff in Pennsylvania’s largest school district are energized by the idea of new leadership.

Turnout grew by nearly 50% from the last election, with roughly 2,500 more ballots cast.

That’s an important message to heed as the PFT negotiates a new contract for teachers, nurses, paraprofessionals, and other public-school employees. The current pact expires at the end of August, and the union has the ability to strike for the first time in nearly 20 years.

“The campaign was spirited, and it allowed us the opportunity to organize around a vision for public education that resonated with our membership,” said PFT president Jerry Jordan in a statement after winning re-election. “Philadelphia’s educators laid the groundwork for the national rebuttal against austerity.”

Jordan has led the union since 2007. He and the rest of his slate will serve another four-year term.

This is the second time that the Caucus of Working Educators (WE) challenged the PFT establishment, known as Collective Bargaining. Four years ago, CB trounced WE by a three-to-one margin.

The margin narrowed this time. CB received about 60% of the 7,200 ballots cast. WE garnered 2,761 votes, up from around 1,300 last time, a spokesperson for the caucus said. Just under 500 ballots included members from both slates.

The results suggest WE is building support, but still has a way to go before it can topple the reigning leadership.

“Today’s results demonstrate huge growth of over 100% for Working Educators’ vision and demonstrate that PFT members are ready for change in how the PFT operates,” said Kathleen Melville, WE candidate for president, in a statement.

WE has crafted an activist voice around issues such as local control for city schools and building conditions. Its platform includes demands for higher wages, smaller class sizes, a more open bargaining process that would include representatives from every school, and “immediate remediation of all…toxic conditions.”

The fight over facilities has become especially acute in recent months — with PFT leadership and WE representatives drawing media attention to the threats posed by asbestos and lead. At times, it has seemed as if the two sides are competing for center stage on an issue that’s galvanized teachers across the city.

The PFT ramped up its aggressiveness by suing the school district, holding several press conferences to demand more state money, and even calling on Gov. Tom Wolf to declare a “state of emergency” for Philadelphia schools. WE, meanwhile, has organized teacher rallies and built grassroots campaigns at schools closed due to asbestos remediation.

The School District of Philadelphia and the PFT fought bitterly over the last contract, resulting in a four-year standoff that increased tensions but avoided any work stoppages.

From 2001 to 2018, Philly teachers were legally barred from striking as part of a deal that placed the school district under the auspices of a five-member, state-controlled panel. When that panel dissolved, a mayoral-appointed school board took its place and the PFT won back its authority to strike.

There hasn’t been a contract negotiation in this new era of local control, so it’s difficult to tell how that shift will influence bargaining.

Teachers’ unions across the country have adopted a more aggressive posture in recent years akin to WE’s stance, resulting in strikes in Chicago, Los Angeles, West Virginia, and elsewhere.

In the 1970s, Philly teachers went on strike regularly, but it’s been nearly 40 years since the last work stoppage.

If Philadelphia educators do strike, state law undercuts some of their leverage. When a teacher strike in Pennsylvania threatens a district’s ability to hold 180 days of classes, the union and district are forced into arbitration. That statute essentially limits work stoppages to one or two weeks.

Editor’s note: Due to an errant press release, a previous version of this article misstated the percent increase in votes for the Caucus of Working Educators. The article has been updated to reflect the accurate percentage and attribute the quote to the proper person.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal