Category Archives: Union

Keeping the Social Contract.

Almost exactly a month ago, I wrote about recovering from surgery and going back to work.

Then, on Monday, my school district had a stealth meeting to cancel my union’s contract and impose health care payments onto staff.

In response, I sent out a tweet that was personal, but important to me.

If you’ve been following the #phled news recently, you know that students at several schools took matters into their own hands today and held their own strikes, organized under the hasthag #studentsforteachers.

(One of their big reasons for doing this? According to state law, Philadelphia teachers cannot strike, or we risk having our teaching licenses revoked. We are the only district in Pennsylvania for which this is true.)

There have been many times on this blog when I have described the community that is SLA, from the thank you notes I write to students to the “safety net of actual human care” that has helped me in the last month. But then last night I got this e-mail:

Hi Ms. Pahomov,

Hope this email finds you well. I was wondering if I could turn your tweet, the one in the attachment, into a poster for the student strike tomorrow

Thanks for your help!

Nikki 

And then, she did:
IMG_1598

I also received the following e-mails from my student assistant teachers while they were striking in front of the school:

Hi I’m outside protesting for you guys. If you need me I’ll come up.

Hiii Ms Pahomov, I’m outside protesting right now but if you need me to help next band I can come up, I don’t want to leave you if you need me.

These are students who I teach and care for — but in a very real and concrete way have cared for me as well, in the last month since I returned to work, and in the years prior to that as well.

As I said to a reporter earlier today, this is not a Hallmark card. This is a situation where both their education and my livelihood are under attack. But in the best version of school, teachers and students have a reciprocal level of trust and respect that allows them to continue to learn and be human — even in the face of crushing adversity.

So why do I keep showing up to work, even though my contract is supposedly canceled? Because I’m trying to be as thoughtful, wise, passionate, and kind as my students are to me.

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My paycheck needs protection from bad legislation!

Last month, I got a survey call on behalf of AFT-Pennsylvania. They started naming a bunch of individuals and organizations and then asking my impression of them.

There was only one group on the list I hadn’t heard of: The Commonwealth Foundation.

A quick perusal of the site brought me to an article title that I couldn’t resist: “Union Dues Exploit Teachers, Taxpayers.”

The crux of the first argument goes as follows:

“The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) is a powerful teachers’ union that runs a highly partisan political machine. Each year, it forces tens of thousands of public school teachers to fund its brazen political agenda under the guise that it “represents teachers’ interests.””

I was surprised. I know that my own union (PFT) lets teachers opt in to both union dues and PAC contributions. These items appear separately on my paycheck — the PAC donation is set at a $1 per cycle, aka $26 a year.

It took me all of 30 seconds to find the PAC site for PSEA. It states quite clearly on their main page:

“No PSEA member dues dollars support PACE. PACE is a nonpartisan organization, funded by voluntary member contributions.”

Now, I’m no language expert — oh wait, yes I am. “Voluntary” does not mean “forced.” It is, in fact, listed by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as an antonym of “forced.”

Now, onto the second claim by the Commonwealth Foundation — that union dues exploit taxpayers:

“You and I pay for it. Government union contracts often require state and local governments to deduct union dues and Political Action Committee donations from employees’ paychecks using taxpayer-funded payroll systems.”

I struggle to find a metaphor that adequately reveals the ridiculousness of this claim. It’s like using a public highway, only we don’t cause any traffic. It’s like we’re using pipes to deliver water, only the pipes never erode. I can choose any number of voluntary deductions, including retirement funds and health care reserves, with no burden to the taxpayer. I have a right to opt into deductions that benefit me. Conservative forces may not like my politics, but that’s not grounds for making my financial choices illegal (and vice versa).

So what’s the purpose of this article? Why, it’s a laughably weak (but possibly still effective) attempt at drumming up public support for Pennsylvania House Bill 1507, which seeks to end the ability of all unions to deduct both PAC contributions and regular union dues from the paychecks of public employees. Firemen and policemen are notably exempted. (Presumably because they’ve got nightsticks and water cannons to fight back with, and I’ll I’ve got are some freshly sharpened pencils. Also this blog.)

Can unions be busted in Pennsylvania? It worked in Wisconsin. Legislation exactly like this eviscerated union membership there. Teachers had a small victory when a recent resolution asking County Commissioners to support the bill was taken off the table before they could vote. But the real threat, the house bill, is still out there. And the busters-at-large are going unchecked in Philadelphia media outlets. (At least western PA is publishing rebuttals.)

As an educator, I’m disappointed that the writers for the Commonwealth Foundation, who presumably graduated high school, could forget the writing lessons they learned from their teachers. Present the facts honestly. Don’t manipulate the truth.

As a union member, I am once again reminded that these forces are out there, and it’s not some secret conspiracy we don’t have access to. It’s right in front of our faces.

Tell everyone you know: the Commonwealth Foundation wants to destroy Pennsylvania unions.

From Chicago to Philadelphia?

I was one of four members of the SLA Community who had the pleasure of presenting at this year’s Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum at The Met School in Providence, RI. I have more ideas swirling around in my head than can reasonably be summarized in this post, but I’m going to attempt a couple of them here.

First off, it was really eye-opening to visit another school that embodies many of the same principals as SLA. We didn’t have a chance to see classes in session, but just exploring the physical building gave us lots of clues about what’s going on and what we could steal. From what I explored, the schools rely more heavily on the advisory system than SLA, and have whole rooms devoted specifically to advisory groups, complete with their own names and cubby systems and tons of individualized support notes on the white boards. The place felt like home.

The sessions that really got me thinking, though, were all about Chicago.

I am a card-carrying member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and on the whole I’m grateful for the work that they do. However, I don’t feel particularly connected to my union. And I don’t think that’s my fault — they don’t work to connect teachers around Philadelphia, beyond the occasional rally. Though I appreciate their protecting my benefits, I also crave networking. What are the other people out there doing? What are their needs, their struggles, their skills and triumphs?

This is a part of what was so interesting about the story of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, shared so eloquently by Xian Barrett at the conference.

Their movement, he said, started with an interested group of twelve people — folks who knew each other from the blogging world, or ran into each other at the annual conference hosted by Teaching For Social Justice, the progressive teacher organization in Chicago.

Over four years, they went from this seed of a group to nearly sweeping all elected positions in the Chicago Teachers Union. Their caucus also continues to organize and publicize as an organization independent of the CTU, and therefore free of some of the gag rules that are enforced around contract negotiations.

How did they do it?

First by listening, he said. Going to every possibly community meeting about educating, asking people what they needed, and acknowledging those needs.

(How did they find the time for this? By working a somewhat inhuman number of hours, including taking personal days and no-pay days to fit it all in.)

Then they found union members — we’re talking actual teachers — who were willing to run for the elected positions within the CTU. Virtually all of them running on the CORE slate were elected.

These folks recognized that they were disenfranchised from a massive behemoth of a system, and they took it over from the inside. Now, of course, they’re struggling with trying not to become the establishment they unseated. Still, they did it.

Could such a thing happen in Philadelphia?

I don’t know. But for the first time, I am seriously asking the question. I hope you will ask it with me.

Ed Note: If you’re in Philadelphia, you should definitely be at next Saturday’s Chicago Teachers Union Panel Discussion. Check it out on the Teacher Action Group website or RSVP via Facebook.