December 23, 2020
It has certainly been an historic year, and one wrought with profound loss and sadness. And as you embark upon a well-deserved respite, I hope you will take time to pause and reflect on how much you have accomplished amidst such trying times. You have done so much for our schoolchildren, your families, and your communities. I hope that you have a peaceful holiday break, and that however you celebrate, you will do so in a way that keeps you and yours safe.
The year was so profound, that I wanted to take a look back at just some of what has unfolded, and our union’s role in all of it. So, bear with me– this is a long one, but I believe it’s important to reflect on one of the most significant years in recent history.
The year began with our ongoing commitment to addressing the facilities crisis, addressing the lead and asbestos crisis in our schools. In fact, in early January, we filed suit against the School District outlining the crisis and what must be done to address it. We have been in ongoing discussions with the District and the Board regarding the lawsuit.
As I shared when we filed, Today’s press conference, as we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, is a profound reminder of the fact that our society has let far too much of Dr. King’s mission go unrealized.
We have seen the injustice unfold time and again in our fight to not only fund our facilities but to address the catastrophic process deficiencies in the process. These are conditions that would never be tolerated in a wealthier, whiter school district. In a 1956 speech, Dr. King outlined a number of steps we must take ‘in order to make segregation a dead factor and integration a reality in our society. And that is, we must continue to struggle through the courts, through legislation or legalism.’ A lawsuit alone will not be enough. All levels of government must insist on substantial funding to overcome the facilities crisis.
As we continue to pursue legal relief, so too are we working with our Fund Our Facilities Coalition, a powerful coalition of dozens of labor, elected, and community partners committed to addressing the crisis. We continued our weekly meetings despite the COVID crisis, and our Zoom meetings helped us to continue to share not only facility specific information with our coalition partners, but to update them on the District’s COVID response as well as our contract fight. The Coalition continues to grow stronger and demand more for our schools.
As a union and as a society, we must collectively fight against the scourge of racism that permeates every facet of society. And the uprisings over the course of the year have been emblematic of the change that is so desperately needed. We issued the following context for our fight:
The unrest unfolding across the nation is borne out of centuries of a society founded on racism, a society rooted in the notion that black and brown people have to, time and again, prove their humanity. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police is another searing example of the criminalization of blackness in America, and it is emblematic of the profound injustice that permeates nearly every aspect of our society. The story of this unrest is not the broken windows. We cannot and will not be distracted from the root cause, from the cries of pain.
The story of this moment is the story of every micro and macro aggression that people of color endure each day. It is a systemic disinvestment from public education–but not in wealthy, white areas. It is the lack of affordable housing. It is the hedge funds and healthcare systems robbing people of their fair share every single day. It is the uprising of a collective consciousness and of an unapologetic demand for better for people of color in our society.
For decades, our students have been robbed of their constitutional right to a thorough and efficient public education system. We have taken our fight to the ballot box, to the streets, and to the courts. But still, for far too many across the country, the promise of an education system that recognizes their inherent value as a human being goes unrealized. The chronic underfunding of an education system is a feature–not a bug–of a society deeply rooted in racism. And as educators, and quite frankly as human beings, we have a fundamental responsibility to recognize the systems that perpetuate the dehumanization of our students and communities.
In considering how to continue to elevate the urgent need to address the racist underpinnings of American society, we must connect the dots between so many deeply troubling facets of our society.
We offer the following Five Principles that we believe must underscore the work each of us does every day.
And as I said regarding the murder of Breonna Taylor, these are incredibly challenging times. I’m heartbroken, outraged, and yet unsurprised that no officer was charged for the murder of Breonna Taylor.
Equal justice under the law means for everyone–I am disgusted by the refusal to charge the police officers responsible for Breonna Taylor’s murder.
Unfortunately, we were again reminded of the deadly consequences of being Black as Walter Wallace, Jr. was murdered at the hands of Philadelphia police. In response to the shooting, I issued this statement.
We will continue this fight into the new year and beyond, and will address the devastating impact of racism in every facet of our lives.
Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, of course the local, state, national, and global response to COVD has been at the forefront. And this Union has played a critical role in ensuring that as a School District, City, and Commonwealth, we’re doing everything in our power to keep communities safe.
From the start of this crisis, we have repeatedly engaged our membership to ensure that your voices are heard and that you are helping to shape the response to this critical crisis. In a series of several surveys, we gauged your assessment and guidance on various COVID-related issues. In March, for example, 5,400 members shared their concerns with remote learning. In May, more than 6,300 members weighed in on their concerns with reopening schools. In June, nearly 6,000 members shared their views on reopening. And in July, over 7,500 members offered critical insight that enabled us to take a strong public position that schools must remain fully virtual. All told, these surveys enabled us to hear your views and turn them into action items for the union.
In July, we issued a comprehensive report on what reopening should look like, and it was based on data and science. It was one of the strongest reopening documents in the nation, and was borne out of months of research and consultation with scientists, medical professionals, union members, and community partners. I shared your concerns and our requirements for a response in testimony to the School Board, as well as with elected leaders and community partners.
Throughout the summer, we continued to sound the alarm about reopening, and participated in a number of meetings and events to ensure that our collective voices were heard. In August, we participated in a policy hearing on reopening, and I was joined by AFTPA President Arthur Steinberg as well as PFT Building Representatives Keith Pretlow and Charlotte McCracken, who shared their insights on remote learning and reopening buildings.
When the District presented another half-baked reopening plan that would jeopardize safety, we again fought back. We’ve made very clear from the start that any reopening cannot jeopardize the safety of students and educators. And our members continued to speak out at every opportunity. Executive Board Member Ivey Welshans shared her insights on a national panel with EPI.
I wrote to Dr. Hite a number of times, including here and here, very clearly outlining our concerns and positions. Our advocacy led to the District finally agreeing to remain virtual until such time as a safe return is possible.
Further, we’ve engaged in many acts of solidarity with our labor partners whose members have struggled profoundly throughout this crisis. We have advocated for a holistic response to the crisis that would help alleviate some of the immense struggles being borne by so much of the labor family.
We conducted a fundraiser for the members of 1199C to purchase critical PPE for their union members working on the front lines in health care facilities. Your generosity allowed us to make an $8000 contribution to their fundraising efforts.
All the while, you have been working harder than ever to ensure that the students you serve can access the very best education in the most challenging of circumstances. We brought your concerns directly to the District, and have continued to champion the work you are doing both to the District as well as to elected officials and the general public. You can see a few of our “Member Spotlight” photos below, and you must take a look at the incredible video submissions we received from dozens of schools.
The efforts that you undertake in order to reach your students is remarkable, and I’ve said it many times before: thank you for all you do for our young people.
While we were navigating COVID, we were also working on another top concern of this year– our contract. You will recall that in August of 2019, we launched a comprehensive member engagement campaign around the negotiation of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. In the early part of the 19-20 school year, we conducted a series of webinars, membership meetings, surveys, and proposal submissions that would define our upcoming negotiations. And all that work is not for naught. However, as you know, due to the COVID pandemic, we sought a one year extension of our previous contact to ensure that when it comes time to negotiate a full CBA, we will be in the strongest position to do so.
In the meantime, we successfully negotiated a one year extension that provided pay increases, both in terms of a retroactive across the board increase as well as steps and lanes. It wasn’t easy, and in fact, brought us to the brink of a strike. From August through November, we held a series of town halls to discuss the status of negotiations, and to share updates on the District’s twisted negotiating tactics, including their efforts to shake down our members. The District hoped that in order to allow for a modest pay increase, I would allow them to rush us to agree to an unsafe reopening plan. But I did not, and with your support, we were able to not only win a pay increase, but also negotiate one of the strongest reopening documents in the nation. Our Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) holds the District accountable every step of the way, and implements a series of very stringent conditions that must be met before reopening is even considered.
Your activism was crucial to this victory. From “Fair Contract Now” social media posts, to a robust call in campaign to elected officials, your voices made a difference. Elected officials were inundated with calls and emails from you, and many even shared their own “solidarity selfie” with us. Never underestimate how much your efforts make a difference. As we embark on negotiations for our next contract, under a serious projected deficit, our collective unity and strength are more important than ever.
And of course, while the virus raged, we were engaged in work regarding the most consequential election of our lifetimes.
Members, even from afar, were engaged. PFT Political Liaison and AFTPA Executive Council Member Marguerite Ruff spoke directly with now President-elect Biden at AFT’s summer convention. It was a powerful moment.
PFT Political Liaison Kate Sundeen participated in an exciting “Supermajority” event featuring a star studded lineup talking about the election.On Labor Day, PFT Building Rep Charlotte McCracken participated in a labor town hall with now President-elect Biden. And just before the election, PFT Political Liaison Benjamin Hover shared the stage with Dr. Jill Biden, and issued these stirring remarks in front of Dr. Biden’s Alma Mater.
Throughout the election cycle, we focused significant efforts on the Presidential election as well as those critical down-ballot races. And while we did not make the gains we needed in the PA House and Senate, our fight goes on. We were pleased to congratulate Philadelphia’s Representative Joanna McClinton on her election as minority leader in the PA House, and we look forward to continuing to work with her.
So many of you participated in the political program, and your activism makes all the difference. From making calls, attending meetings, to attending the local AFT bus tour stops, your voice and your vote are key.
All the while, bad actors were fighting to suppress the vote. But every step of the way, the courts (and ultimately the PA and US Supreme Courts) validated the right of every person to vote and have their voices heard. Locally, the election work we have done has helped secure these critical court victories. Further, our attorneys filed an Amicus Brief that helped secure access to critical election protections.
But even after a clear Biden-Harris victory, we knew that the malfeasance would not stop. Despite a bizarre Trump campaign temper tantrum at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, our work to Count Every Vote came up big. So many of you submitted videos highlighting the urgency of counting every vote. (Take a look at just a few right here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
And you cannot miss PFT Exec Board Officer Trina Dean’s remarkable speech at the Count Every Vote rally right here.
It is a new day for public education. We will finally see the end of Betsy DeVos’s and Donald Trump’s unrelenting cruelty. You can read more about Joe Biden’s strong public education agenda right here. Our work is cut out for us ahead, but we have a partner in the White House who is married to a public school educator and who has shared a deep commitment to investing in public schools.
I want to end by simply saying thank you. Thank you for your work, for your solidarity, for your fortitude, for your grace, and for your unrelenting perseverance. This union, our schools, our city, and our society are better because of you.
Wishing you joy and peace, and with solidarity forever,