Sunday, September 29, 2013

The PFT: The most ineffective of Philadelphia's unions?

The recent announcement that SEPTA's TWU Local 234 (the union representing bus drivers and other transit workers) is beginning to meet in order to hammer out a new contract deserves to be viewed in light of the currently ongoing Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract talks and the soon to expire Fraternal Order of Police #5 contract. Like the recently expired PFT contract, the current SEPTA and FOP contracts expire in a few months. Like the SEPTA and FOP contracts, the PFT contract dates back to 2009. All three unions are also taxpayer funded and, as such, targets of city and state politicians seeking to tighten their fiscal belts.

SEPTA's unionized workers recently chose Willie Brown as their new president. Yes, that's the same Willie Brown who led SEPTA through a controversial and inconvenient 6-day strike in 2009 as the World Series ended. That strike even disrupted the polls on Election Day. Willie Brown lost his re-election bid in 2010, but just won back the post (TWU and the FOP hold elections every 3 years, unlike the PFT which holds them every 4 years) and will be negotiating TWU's new contract with SEPTA.

Here is a brief summary of the expiring five-year contract with SEPTA:
  --> $1,250 "signing bonus" to each union member
  --> raises of 2.5% in the second and third year
  --> 3.5% raise in the fourth year
  --> 3% raise in the final year
While this 2009 contract gave an effective cost-of-living adjustment of 12% to the city's bus drivers (with an extra $1250 bonus), the city's teachers received a measly 6% increase as a result of their 2009 contract. Police officers received a whopping 14.7% increase during the same time.

New bus drivers now get $32,900 a year, and drivers with four or more years experience are paid $54,800 a year. Remember, however, that they are due a 3% raise in December. That means a 4th year bus driver (qualification of a high school diploma and driver's license) will be making nearly $56,450, not including time and a half for overtime. Current 4th year teachers with the District earn $54,365. That means, starting in December, many of the city's bus drivers will be earning more than the city's teachers.

In fact, when we look at aggregate earnings over an average 30-year career, Philadelphia bus drivers earn more than Philadelphia teachers with a Bachelor's Degree. The following chart details the difference using the 2013 contract-negotiated salary of each union. I used an extremely conservative estimate of $25,000 per year for undergraduate studies (including tuition, books, housing costs, etc.).

Some may view TWU Local 234's successes in obtaining a fair wage and benefits package for their members as a result of their aggressiveness and willingness to use labor actions. (The Police union is legally barred from going on strike and often settles their contract in arbitration.) SEPTA workers went on strike in both 2005 and 2009, causing vast disruptions to the city and destroying the public image of their union and its leaders, such as Willie Brown. The PFT's president, Jerry Jordan, takes the other approach and attempts to gain as much public support as possible for the teachers and their union. Jerry Jordan has been extremely successful in this respect. Only 11% of the city currently blames the teachers and their union for the woes of the district, with over 80% focusing their ire on those who control the purse-strings, namely the city and state governments. 

Such public support is great, but if one does not use it, then to what end? Despite this massive show of support, the teachers have not called for a true strike in over 30 years... Act 46 be damned. Instead, the PFT leadership chooses to open schools at understaffed levels, tells teachers to "do their best" with what little resources they have, and instructs them to wait it out. Unfortunately, the time for a strike is already past us seeing as the public would most likely say, "Well, you've been working for a month under these deplorable conditions, so they can't be that bad. Why strike now?" 

Meanwhile, as teachers trudge along in overcrowded classrooms with no paper, no technology, no libraries, no counselors, no after-school funds, and no support staff, Willie Brown is vowing to fight for such small but important changes in his members' working conditions as new mirrors on every bus, wanted posters clearly showing those who have assaulted bus drivers, an increase in undercover police or surveillance, and a stern promise to halt any attempts at privatizing mass transit by Harrisburg.

An analysis of the three largest tax-supported unions in the city shows how this lack of aggressive negotiation has hurt Philadelphia's teachers. Perhaps the PFT's ineffectiveness lies in its static and stale leadership. Whereas SEPTA's Willie Brown and the Fraternal Order of Police's John McNesby have both faced challenges to their positions and recently labored "in the trenches" with other members of their workforce, Jerry Jordan hasn't stepped foot in a classroom since 1987!

This chart, compiled from publicly available contracts, shows the ineffectiveness of the PFT when compared to SEPTA's TWU Local 234 and the Police Department's FOP #5. Notice the difference in cost of living wage adjustments each year for the past decade:

Ignore for a minute, if you will, the fact that Philadelphia bus drivers and police officers have had salary increases at nearly DOUBLE the rate of teachers over the past decade. This shortcoming becomes even more glaring when one considers that the inflation rate from January 2004 to the present month stands at 26.28%. This means that, over the past ten years, while bus drivers have gained a real wage increase of 9% (plus a $1250 bonus) and police officers have gained a real wage increase of 14%, teachers have actually taken a PAY CUT OF 6%. This is even more insulting when one considers that, in order to gain employment, teachers (unlike all bus drivers and most police officers) must obtain, at a minimum, a Bachelor's Degree which costs well over $100,000 in average 2013 college tuition costs.

The issue of degrees is even more insulting when one considers how the PFT has negotiated top salaries for Philadelphia teachers in the form of their "Senior Career Teacher" classification. Philadelphia is the only school district in Pennsylvania that requires its teachers to earn a Masters Degree, plus 60 graduate credits AND two teacher certifications in order to earn that top salary. Here is a quick snapshot of some other districts and what their top salary education requirements are:

When one considers the prohibitively expensive cost of post-graduate study, pursuing these courses of higher education can be quite cost restrictive. Other teacher unions around the state, unlike the PFT, have taken this into account and negotiated contract terms with their respective districts that reimburse teachers for a vast majority of that tuition. Where does that leave us? Philadelphia teachers must pay the MOST to earn the LEAST.

Of course, there is one way for Philadelphia teachers to earn more than even the highest paid suburban teacher, avoid these costly education courses, and not worry about the fact that we have effectively taken a 6% pay cut over the past decade. You could join the union leadership. Everyone on the PFT's contract negotiating team earns well over $110,000 and more than any of the highest paid suburban teachers. In fact, one of the first things negotiated in the PFT contract, on page 2, is that "annually, the President of the Federation shall inform the School District of the salary to be paid to each employee on approved leave with the Federation. The School District shall adjust each employee’s salary accordingly." That's right, PFT leadership has the right to tell the District what it must pay them, and can alter it every year!

Jerry Jordan hasn't taught in a classroom since 1987, doesn't have a Master's Degree, and still managed to pull in $150,000. But Jerry Jordan doesn't earn the highest salary in the PFT headquarters on Chestnut Street. That honor goes to ex-PFT president and current AFT-PA president Ted Kirsch, who pulls in nearly $200,000 according to public disclosure documents filed with the Department of Labor.

Let's hope Ted Kirsch, the PFT leadership, and Jerry Jordan emulate their lesser paid counterparts, Willie Brown and John McNesby, and earn those salaries during the current contract negotiations. Now more than ever, Philadelphia's teachers need strong union leadership that will get them competitive wages and better working conditions, not more excuses and continuous rallies that seem to go in circles. If not, we may have to start looking for a new career that respects us as professionals, furnishes us with the work environment we deserve, and helps us bring home a decent wage that provides for our families...

I hear SEPTA is hiring.


  1. Damn informative. This needs to go out to City Paper and the Inquirer for wider media coverage, and to TAGPhilly to help inspire the growth of an insurgent platform in PFT.

  2. Turning the rank and file against leadership will only weaken our union. Shame on you. What you're not taking into consideration is that there is NO MONEY to give the teachers. There's no money!

  3. Great article. There's plenty of money in the city and state, but it's being held ransom by business interests supporting a national agenda of privatization and union busting. The only way for teachers to earn a living they deserve, and for students and community members to get the schools they deserve, is to put up a fight. Jerry Jordan has so far appeared too comfortable to lead that fight. It's time for teachers, students, workers, and the community to push failing and corrupt leadership aside - and lead this fight ourselves.

  4. You make some good points, but what's needed now is solidarity with the union. There are several groups out there that want nothing more than to destroy the PFT and privatize public education; that's what they exist for. By trying to splinter teacher groups from the union, you're just empowering the anti-public ed. contingent.
    When a contract is gotten, form a "slate". That would be the time to challenge the incumbents and run for office. It's been done before. Of course, those who ran (and won) did have knowledge of how the union works! So, get involved, learn the workings and the players, and then, you might be successful.
    Just don't undercut the only representatives that the teachers have now, while they're trying to preserve your job.

  5. The main point of this article is NOT about the leadership, it's about what hasn't been done by our union, the whole union. While the leadership should be very aware of how tenuous this makes their positions, they don't seem to be aware. The backlash against criticism often boils down to, "The union is nothing without the leaders", and really, if that's the case, the union is nothing at all.

  6. i am a building rep & i am completely disgusted by the PFT leadership's lack of responsiveness to the rank and file. they undermine solidarity with every phone call they make that shows up as RESTRICTED (that is every phone call to non paid pft, at least from my staffer), and every email that says "do not reply" That is a PFT policy toward the membership! "Do not call us; we'll call you." It is offensive.

  7. Great piece and great comparison....however, the one thing the author fails to mention is that the teachers contract comes from public (tax) dollars and the SEPTA contract is private funds.

  8. Good article, the writer leaves out an interesting fact, these SEPTA bus drivers even thou just HS educated, are not only driving a public transit bus, in some of the worst and aggressive traffic in the nation, but they deal with some of the most violent, most insane, nasty and wretched beings on a daily basis. The people/passengers they come in contact with each and every day and the situations they have to quell and diffuse, justify their salary.....

  9. I also recognize, that the cities public school teachers are basically targets of violence as the overall student population, is a population that is viciously violent, rudely hateful and angrily temperamental, as well as ethically and morally challenged individuals, who never want to learn!

    City of Philadelphia teachers should be trained and be permitted to carry self defense taser technology, self defense capsium spray technology or self defense firearm technology.

    As the animals run the school hallways, and the teachers are caught in between the animals and the pompous school administrations who use progressive terms to describe their student population and the progressive dilemma's they project on and toward the teachers.

    Always concerned for bus drivers and teacher or anyone who has to work in such a violent city with such an overall disgusting and violent population!