A Rank-and-File Teachers’ Movement Takes On Asbestos and Lead in Schools

A militant caucus within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is showing how, with rank-and-file leadership, unions can be a powerful force for fighting deep-rooted environmental injustice.

Nearly 24 years ago, students at Franklin Learning Center sounded the alarm about asbestos and lead in their school, blocking traffic and interrupting a Board of Education meeting to demand repairs and renovations that would make the building safe. That same school, Franklin Learning Center, was shut down between December 17, 2019 and January 2, 2020, in order to remediate damaged asbestos. Throughout both incidents, Jerry Jordan was helping to lead the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). After 30 years of Jordan’s leadership, as director of staff and then president, Caucus of Working Educators (WE) is running to cast off the old leadership, and end toxic schools, once and for all.

WE, a reform caucus of the PFT, was founded in 2014 in order to engage rank-and-file members and to vy for leadership of the union (Disclosure: This writer is a supporter of the caucus in a strictly volunteer and unpaid capacity). WE ran in 2016 and lost with about 30% of the vote, but is running again this year with a “pledge to engage ALL of our members, teachers and other professionals, and to fight for the issues that matter most to all of us.” The caucus notes that “PFT membership has shrunk by 40%, from 21,000 to 13,000, our buildings are giving us cancer and other chronic illnesses, class sizes are too big, special education services are chronically understaffed, 30 schools have been closed, and paraprofessionals and support staff are criminally underpaid.” Ballots were mailed to teachers homes on February 6, and votes are counted on February 26.

The caucus has been using its campaign to highlight its toxic schools campaign, which began in May 2018, after a damning report in the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed the depth of the asbestos, lead and mold crises in Philadelphia’s public school buildings. Rank-and-file members of the WE caucus sprang into action, launching a petition demanding safe learning conditions, specifically by demanding an end to the 10-year tax abatement, and for big universities and other mega nonprofits to provide payments in lieu of taxes.

This effort caught fire. In the fall of 2018, more than 3,000 people signed the petition (a majority of them teachers), and WE brought it to both the School Board and City Council in spring 2019. WE also worked on a media campaign to show how developers and the wealthy get rich as schools suffer, noting Philadelphia’s Dickens-esque tale of two cities: one for public school students, mostly children of color living in poverty, and another for developers and the University of Pennsylvania, who benefit from the 10-year tax abatement and their non-profit status, respectively.

The stakes of this struggle are high, and at times, WE has been at loggerheads with the existing leadership of the union. The Building Committee at McClure Elementary began pushing the District in September to investigate asbestos at the school, and the District finally listened, inspected and found asbestos. Although they were closed for clean-up on December 19, the Philadelphia School District scheduled to reopen the school during the first week of January.

Understandably, parents and educators were outraged that the school was reopening in spite of the continued presence of elevated levels of asbestos. In response to these concerns, WE joined with parents and held a rally on the morning of the re-opening, and called in press and local politicians to support the demands for a full and thorough clean-up before the building was reopened. Despite attempts by PFT leadership to intervene and cancel the rally, teachers stood strong, and won: The District closed the school two days later to finish cleaning the asbestos from the building. And at Lewis Elkin Elementary School, disturbed asbestos was found near the cafeteria, gym and school yard. Although the district assured teachers and students that they were safe, teachers refused to go into work. This choice was not sanctioned by the union, but decided by the rank and file at Elkin.

By zeroing in on toxic schools, the WE caucus picked an issue to fight, lead and win on. In late 2019, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a veteran teacher had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, the cancer caused by asbestos, which is also linked to lung, laryngeal and ovarian cancers, along with other diseases. And as the wealthy skirt paying property taxes, the breadth of the anger around toxic schools grows: It’s been a problem for decades, almost nothing has changed, and no one seems to be on the hook for it. Cleaning up school buildings is a non-ideological issue that can unite teachers across gender, race, and political lines. After all, everyone deserves safe working conditions. And there’s a solution: Tax the rich and end the tax abatement to pay for the building renovations Philadelphia schools so desperately need. WE has been very clear about both the problem and the solution, and it’s organized from the bottom up to turn this crisis for students and teachers into a crisis for the School Board, the city, the state and—frankly—PFT leaders, who are scrambling to keep up with WE’s work.

Instead of leading on this issue and organizing their members to take action, the current leaders of the PFT have been following in WE’s footsteps. They launched the Fund our Facilities Coalition in March 2019, more than six months after WE’s petition was moving throughout the schools. The Coalition is comprised mostly of union leaders and elected officials, whereas WE’s focus is on organizing their base: teachers who work in toxic schools day in and day out. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, union leader announced that they would be filing a lawsuit against the district, for failure to protect public school students and staff. Pennsylvania’s state constitution says that “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.” Philadelphia’s toxic buildings are a moral—and possibly legal—failing, and of course the union should take legal action against the district. But this should have been done a long time ago, and there is much more that needs to be done in order to make schools safe for students and teachers—and the Caucus of Working Educators is the body doing it.

Meanwhile, WE has given every indication that it plans to continue demanding safe environments, not just for teachers, but students, parents and every community member who has a stake in healthy schools. As two leaders in WE, Janene Hasan and Kathleen Melville, put it in an op-ed published last April, “These conditions would never be allowed to continue in suburban or majority­-white school districts. As teachers, we refuse to remain silent while our students are trapped in toxic buildings.”