In a unanimous vote, almost 2,000 unionized cafeteria and student climate staff across the Philadelphia School District have authorized a strike as their current contract is set to expire on September 30. United Here Local 634 represents these workers across 216 schools in the district.
“This strike authorization vote gives our Executive Board the ability to do what is necessary if the School District is not able to meet our commonsense demands,” Unite Here Local 634 President Nicole Hunt said in a statement. “We will no longer accept less.”
Local 634 members are working hard to ensure their demands are actualized in an updated contract before September 30. Their demands include deescalation training for student climate staff; working equipment, including walkie-talkies and cooking appliances; and a wage increase of $1.50 per hour. Hunt stated that district officials told union leaders these demands are “not feasible.”
Philadelphia School District Superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. stated in an editorial board meeting that he is “optimistic” that a tentative agreement will be reached by the end of the month. But Local 634 President Hunt told Truthout that negotiations have been ongoing since April, while a need to strike has been “bubbling up over years.” In fact, she clarifies that with the onset of the pandemic, cafeteria workers were tasked with packing lunches for students who were learning remotely, yet were paid the same amount they would be during a regular school year.
“When school shut down in 2020, food service workers were still in the building, risking their lives to make sure students had food to pick up — meanwhile they couldn’t even afford to feed their own families,” she said.
These workers, who are overwhelmingly Black and Brown women, say they live paycheck to paycheck or often need to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. “It’s a lot on the workers,” Local 634 member Kiara Coleman told The Philadelphia Inquirer — especially with kitchens becoming increasingly short staffed. Despite the majority of members living in the neighborhoods they work, Hunt tells Truthout that most can’t afford to live on their own.
Despite being underpaid by the school district, Hunt notes that that Local 634 workers are worked way beyond their capacity. This includes student climate staff, who monitor student behavior during unstructured times like lunch and recess. The Philadelphia School District ultimately turned to hiring climate workers from Local 634 after realizing it could pay these members less than former climate staff (called “non-teaching assistants”) who are part of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).
In fact, while non-teaching assistants were full-time employees who worked for 10 months at a time, Local 634 members — including cafeteria workers — are typically scheduled for three or four hours a day, just under the five-hour minimum required to qualify for health insurance. To make matters worse, Hunt told Truthout that Local 634 student climate staff are given only $117 a year to cover health and welfare costs. In contrast, similar positions that are included in the union, such as “supportive services assistants,” are given $4,000 a year for health and welfare, according to Hunt. As their hours are split up throughout the day, most workers aren’t able to get another job, Hunt states, with schools calling them back in at random times even if workers have indicated they can’t work those times.
Furthermore, with no training in conflict resolution or working walkie-talkies, student climate staff lack the proper tools and resources to protect the children. “How are we supposed to keep kids safe when folks don’t know the best ways to deescalate when you know a fight is going to happen? Kids run around; kids try to leave the schoolyard — so are staff supposed to chase them?” Hunt told Truthout. “Shootings happen during the day, and kidnappings happen — how do you make a decision in those cases? How do you even communicate with each other when your walkie-talkies aren’t working? Most of [the climate staff] have to use their cellphones for that.”
Instead of working to keep children safe, climate staff find themselves serving as stand-ins for other positions throughout the school day. “Climate staff tell me they’re working as secretaries, aides for students with special needs, delivering papers to classrooms — [the school district] feels like they can use the climate staff in whatever capacity they want to,” Hunt says. They’re tasked with fulfilling these positions despite no training within them, no compensation for working them, and all while needing to watch two to three classes of up to 30 students each.
Hunt further noted that cafeteria workers are often required to bring in cooking equipment from their homes in order to prepare meals because their schools do not provide them with effective equipment. “And we have all of this extra work with no proper breaks.”
The union is demanding for workers to be properly compensated for their labor and only be asked to accomplish the job as outlined in the description. Raising the wage by $1.50 an hour would ensure that all workers are paid at least $17 an hour. “Our lowest paid people make $15.50 — that’s the lowest in the school district,” Hunt told Truthout. On top of this, Local 634 aims to eliminate or at least shorten probationary periods, when staff are paid 93 percent of their salary. Currently, climate staff have a probationary period of three months, and for cafeteria workers it’s six months. This is the fight that’s taking the longest, Hunt clarifies, because district officials are looking to lengthen these periods.
“We’re fighting hard right now. And [our concerns] aren’t just overlooked by the school district — they’re overlooked by the whole city, actually,” Hunt told Truthout. It isn’t new for the city of Philadelphia to completely disregard the needs of its schooling system. In fact, decades of underfunding means the predominantly Black and Brown students in Philadelphia’s school system experience larger class sizes, underqualified teachers, unsafe buildings and fewer extracurricular opportunities compared to students in wealthier Pennsylvania districts.
In a series of hearings implemented by Pennsylvania’s school funding commission, Philadelphia Superintendent Watlington testified that the district was recently forced to close more than 80 buildings early each day during the first week of this 2023-2024 school year because they lack air-conditioning. In Philadelphia, the average school building is 70 years old, which would explain persistent breakouts of asbestos that have closed down up to six public schools in the 2022-2023 year alone. Watlington stressed that fully modernizing and repairing the school district’s infrastructure would cost $7.9 billion.
Student climate staff and cafeteria workers have not been the only Philadelphia School District employees in recent times to consider a strike to improve their working conditions. Around this same time last year, bus drivers and building cleaners with Services Employees International Union Local 32BJ were prepared to strike a week ahead of school starting, but they managed to win historic wage increases. Hunt hopes her union’s negotiations with the district will lead to a similar outcome for climate staff and cafeteria workers.
“The common denominator between all of us at [Local] 634 is our love for the children. So a strike is the last thing that we want, because we know it’s not gonna be [district officials] that will suffer, it’s gonna be our babies that’s hurt,” she told Truthout. “My hope is that the school district opens their eyes and stops treating us like we don’t matter. Because how do you make the kids think that they matter if the workers don’t think that they matter to their employer?”
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