Workers Vanguard No. 1055
31 October 2014
Labor Tops Derail Anger, Promote Democrats
Government Junks Philly Teachers Contract
Defend the Unions Through Class Struggle!
In a move aimed at crippling the Philadelphia teachers union, the state School Reform Commission (SRC) that runs Philly schools voted 5-0 on October 6 to rip up the union contract. For 21 months the SRC had dragged out negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), which represents 16,000 public school teachers and support staff, seeking to squeeze deeper concessions than the compliant PFT tops had already volunteered. The state board, which has run the local school system since 2001, expects to save $50 million it pays into the union-run health care plan and force teachers to pay hefty premiums (up to $200 a month for some) for an inferior plan. Every public workers union contract in Pennsylvania will be on the chopping block if the SRC gets away with nullifying a collective bargaining agreement by fiat.
Many parents and students as well as teachers and the city’s unions were furious over the SRC action, the latest offensive in a nationwide war against teachers unions. The decision was termed an “ambush” after the supposedly public hearing was held virtually unannounced. By its own reckoning, the board had already closed 31 schools in a district where half the students are black and most are poor, shedding librarians, nurses and music teachers and cutting basic education to the bone. Others put the number of closed schools much higher, with the jobs of more than 4,000 unionized custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers being axed in the last couple of years.
In the days following the cancellation of the contract, protests culminated in a 3,000-strong PFT-led demonstration at rush hour on October 16 that shut down North Broad Street, the city’s main artery. Protesters then filed into school district headquarters and packed the first SRC meeting held since its salvo against the teachers. Earlier, students at several high schools had walked out of school in protest.
The SRC’s attempt to tear up the contract with the union is outrageous enough to have prompted the city’s union tops to hold two meetings at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 98 hall where they mooted the possibility of a one-day general strike. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer (16 October), “Labor leaders debated the wisdom of asking members of all area unions—laborers, electricians, communications workers, janitors, nurses, bus drivers, city employees—to walk off their jobs to protest the SRC’s decision.” But PFT president Jerry Jordan “told the group that he wanted to exhaust legal remedies first.”
Shelving the strike weapon, the union officials decided to dedicate their efforts to voting out Republican governor Tom Corbett on November 4 in favor of Democrat Tom Wolf—the same class-collaborationist strategy of looking for friendly capitalist politicians that has crippled the labor movement. The big October 16 rally was filled with signs calling to vote for Wolf and “Crush Corbett.”
But even the talk of a general strike made people take notice. On October 20, the teachers union won a temporary injunction in Common Pleas court blocking the SRC from scrapping its contract, which remains in effect. But this settles nothing. Solidarity in action from the city union movement must be brought to bear in defense of the teachers, who are forbidden to strike by the same state laws that imposed SRC control on Philadelphia schools and whose pay has been frozen since August 2013. The union bureaucrats who debated calling a citywide strike know that such hard class struggle would entail a head-on collision with not only the Republican state house but also the Democratic Philadelphia city administration. It also means going up against the courts, which like the cops and prisons are a core component of the state repressive apparatus that serves the rule of the capitalist exploiters.
Union-busting against the teachers is a bipartisan effort. Appointed by Governor Corbett, the current SRC chairman, William Green, is a stock trader as well as a corporate lawyer who represented top Fortune 500 companies. Corbett’s broadside against the teachers was calculated to shore up his losing campaign for re-election. His unpopularity is in part due to more than a billion dollars in cuts he has made to public education. His challenger, Wolf, is a folksy moderate who has pledged to restore education funding and to ensure “accountability” of charter schools, the favored vehicle for siphoning off public monies into private hands and busting teachers unions. Democrats running for office often posture as friends of the working people, but in office they do the bidding of the ruling class as do the Republicans. A Democrat drew up the plans for the creation of the SRC in 1998. In 2001, the Democratic mayor worked with the Republican governor to trigger the SRC takeover of Philadelphia schools in evident reprisal for a teachers strike in 2000.
Philadelphia’s current black Democratic mayor, Michael Nutter, was elected with heavy support from the PFT. He holds sway over a city of deindustrialization marked by impoverished inner city neighborhoods, segregated and underfunded schools and crumbling infrastructure and services. These desperate conditions are enforced by Philly’s infamously racist police force. Nutter is just one of the political overseers of a system that has fewer and fewer decent jobs to offer young workers, which for the ruling class means less reason to spend money on education. This brutal fact stands behind the attacks on teachers across the country and the demands that they “share in the sacrifice.” It points to the need to overthrow the capitalist system, which cares only for its profits and throws millions of youth, especially minorities, on the scrapheap.
Philadelphia is a union town where sanitation and other city workers have a history of hard labor struggle. But here as elsewhere in this country, the rulers have been emboldened by decades of union givebacks. The only way forward is through mobilizing the power of the working class at the head of all the oppressed in battle against its class enemy. That struggle will bring forth the new leadership that the unions require, one based on working-class independence from the bosses’ state and their political parties. A revolutionary party is the indispensable factor for a successful working-class conquest of power, replacing the class rule of the bourgeoisie by a revolutionary workers government.