Hundreds of teachers, students, parents, and union leaders are expected to attend a massive rally in Philadelphia on Thursday afternoon, protesting the recent cancellation of the teachers' union contract and imposition of health care costs on educators.
The demonstration will take place at 4 p.m. outside a meeting of the state's School Reform Commission (SRC), which last week voted quietly and unanimously to terminate the contract, a move many see as openly hostile to the union and to the city's public education system in general.
"Philadelphia public schools have been subject to systematic disinvestment for decades. This intentional underfunding of our schools by Governor Corbett is the number one problem we face."
—Philadelphia Students Union
"The SRC's biggest act of disrespect deserves our community's biggest response," reads a flyer distributed by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), which is organizing the protest. During the event, which will be led by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, teachers will be hosting "grade-ins" and wielding giant pencils and erasers meant to "erase" the SRC.
Those who can't attend in person are being encouraged to post a #solidaritywithteachers photo on social media. Many already have.
According to New York Times' reporting earlier this week:
Labor experts said that even if teachers in Philadelphia might eventually have conceded the need to pay for benefits, canceling their contract—which expired in August 2013—was a nuclear option. “This is essentially declaring war on the union,” said Gary N. Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
Teachers, who have taken on additional duties covering recess and lunch, as well as counseling and even medical care, are dispirited.
“I am not a volunteer, and I am not a saint,” said Amy Roat, a 20-year veteran who works with children learning English as a second language at Feltonville. “I am a teacher.”
Philadelphia labor leaders met last Thursday and Sunday to debate calling a general strike among all the city's union workers—from bus drivers to electricians to nurses—in solidarity with the teachers.
But the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that "practical considerations won out" in the end:
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, told the group that he wanted to exhaust legal remedies first.
And the leaders decided to await the outcome of the Nov. 4 gubernatorial election. Democratic candidate Tom Wolf has said he supports returning Philadelphia's schools to local control. The SRC is a state board.
"After a thorough vetting, we decided to go out and get Tom Wolf elected" governor, Dougherty said.
Jordan said he appreciated the support of his fellow labor leaders. The SRC's decision to end collective bargaining "was just so offensive to everyone in labor," he said.
Many of those same union workers are expected to turn out to Thursday's protest, as are local parents and community members, who held a smaller rally on Wednesday.
The Inquirer reported that during the demonstration, which was attended by about two dozen people, anti-poverty advocate and Philadelphia resident Cheri Honkala said the commission underestimated the will of district parents.
"They made one big mistake," Honkala told the crowd. "You don't mess with our babies."
Also on Wednesday evening, the Philadelphia Students Union protested a screening—hosted by SRC chairwoman Sylvia Simms and sponsored by Comcast—of the anti-union film Won't Back Down.
"This film demonizes teachers unions and promotes charter expansion as the solution to 'failing' school districts," the Student Union said in a statement at its website. "Showing a movie that blames teachers for the struggles of public schools while promoting charter expansion as the solution, a week after the SRC canceled the teachers’ contract, is a shady ploy to manipulate parents into going along with the school district’s plan towards privatization."
The statement continued:
We had no choice but to take action in protest of another blatant attack on our teachers and our schools. Just like in the movie, Philadelphia public schools have been subject to systematic disinvestment for decades. This intentional underfunding of our schools by Governor Corbett is the number one problem we face. If our schools had been funded via a full funding formula, public schools would be flourishing, not failing.
Thursday's protesters will be met by a handful of anti-union activists who are reportedly being paid by an out-of-state advertising and marketing firm. According to Billy Penn, a Philadelphia-based news site, a conservative, free-market think tank called the Commonwealth Foundation hired New York marketing firm GoGorilla to coordinate—and pay—about 12 people to hand out fliers and hold banners in opposition to the teachers’ union.
The Harrisburg think tank is also behind the new website PFTFails.com, which is aimed at laying out how the PFT's "selfish agenda" fails children and the poor.