“We Fought and We Won”: Teacher Organizing in Philadelphia

Interview With Daniel Symonds

March 21, 2021

The School District of Philadelphia announced that district schools would officially reopen their doors on February 8, 2021, despite a widely-touted lack of adequate ventilation systems and PPE. In response, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) made national news by refusing to enter district schools on the official day of reopening. The work action forced the district to negotiate with the union, and they were later able to mutually agree upon a plan that would provide safer working and learning conditions in schools.

Throughout this contentious time, the Caucus of Working Educators, a social justice caucus seeking to push its union toward stronger member engagement and assertive resistance to austerity and school privatization, has done much of the behind-the-scenes work to support union members and advocate for safe and healthy schools.

In this interview, Rhiannon Maton, an assistant professor at SUNY Cortland and former active supporting member of the Caucus, interviews Daniel Symonds, a high school social studies teacher in the district and active Caucus of Working Educators member. The interview took place on Sunday, March 14, and discusses what teaching has looked like during Covid-19, union response and organizing in the face of school reopening, and the complex relationship between the union and a caucus vying for power.

Thank you for talking with me today, Daniel. Can you tell us a little about your current work in Philadelphia?

My name is Daniel Symonds. I am a 7-year veteran of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). I teach ninth- and tenth-graders history at one of Philly’s premier, most racially and economically diverse magnet schools. I have, as long as I’ve been an educator, been involved in union organizing, specifically as part of the Caucus of Working Educators, which has sought to make our American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local more democratic, more Left, and more engaged in coalition with other social justice organizations and unions around the city.

I have always cut my time between classroom teaching and union organizing, and helping other members of our 13,000-member union believe in the power of working together and that we don’t have to suffer under our circumstances as we do. That we can change through the power of the union.

Let’s start by talking about your job as a teacher in the Philadelphia School District. How has your job has changed since COVID-19?

Quite radically. Today marks day 366 that I have not been in a school building to teach children. Schools were left to decide their own schedule, within some parameters. For me, I went from teaching 4 days a week, 65 minutes per class to now twice a week, 90 minutes per class, on Zoom. Basically, the pace of school has slowed down enormously. Every student is many months deep into this, as are all the educators. I would say people are pretty tired, excited to get back to the building when it’s safe. It’s like I teach school devoid of all the nice things: having people in the hallway, watching kids have crushes and share snacks, and win sports games. Its school pared down to its absolute least interesting part, which is just the curriculum.

To clarify, as a high school teacher, you are still not in the school building?

Correct. Only kindergarten through second grade are back in school, and that’s only some days per week. The vast majority of educators and students remain fully remote still.

Can you tell me about the experiences of some of your students and their families during COVID-19?

It’s hard to be specific, and that’s because the condition of being isolated and on Zoom means that you don’t get to look in somebody’s eyes or hear a story of how they’re doing. The norm has been that students are very bored at best, learning less at best, and at worst, many, many, many students have been cut through with death in the family, loss of job, with people now living in homes that really weren’t ever big enough to hold all of them at once, all the time. I have students who are definitely on some of the lines for food distribution. I mean, it’s been a time of untold hardship, and it’s been important to recalibrate the classroom experience to accommodate the fact that there’s more trauma in our classrooms than ever before.

We just had a quarter where there were more interim reports, meaning more students in the middle of a quarter failing a class, than ever before, the most failures of any quarter ever in the school’s history. That was a moment where we are doing our very best to be forgiving and generous with the grading policy in order to accommodate COVID. It’s like spiraling crises, but even that didn’t prevent us from having the most failure ever in a quarter.

You are an active member of Philadelphia’s Caucus of Working Educators. I met you through this work eight or nine years ago, around the time that the Caucus first emerged, and you have continued to be a core active member since then. Can you provide a little context for our readers about the Caucus and its goals?

The Caucus seeks to build a more powerful teachers union in order to advance social, racial, economic justice. We do that through the mechanism of union organizing, the mechanism of building democracy within our union, conducting political education within our union, helping buildings become places of solidarity and trust between members. That kind of ideological political work, when it’s scaled up, eventually will get us access to something like a union budget. It will eventually get us access to, “Hey, you can’t be mayor unless you do the right thing for student healthcare. You can’t be mayor unless you help take police out of our schools.”

That is, I think, broadly the role of the Caucus. It sees itself as part of a long-range political movement to increase the politicization of educators within the school district to advance a more unapologetically left, coalition-minded union, and then on a brass-tacks level, to have the money, the electoral organizing and the school-based organizing capacity to take shit from nobody.

Let’s shift into talking about the district push to reopen schools. So, earlier this year, the district announced that schools would reopen for in-person classes on Monday February 8, 2021. Would you say that there was parental and community support for the reopening of school buildings?

Not strong parent and community support. Certainly not organized. It’s complicated. I am reluctant to oversimplify where the parents are at. Really, it’s like the parent constituency is cut up by class, age of child, and probably their access to healthcare. To take a non-representative sample, yeah, like the Cedar Park, West Philly, mansion-type white families, they would absolutely say, “Reopen, come on. I want my kid back in school.” Then you can find lower-income families of color that more often than not see reopening as a grave threat to health.

When the district announced plans to reopen the school buildings on February 8, 2021, there were 3 main acts of resistance on that day by educators in Philadelphia, documented by the media. First, the PFT announced that union members would take a work action and refuse to return to unsafe school buildings. Second, there was a morning press conference featuring various high profile people, including Randi Weingarten and a range of local elected officials. And third, the Caucus of Working Educators organized a rally on the same day, for after the work action. Can you tell me more about what happened that day?

What happened was on Monday February 8, every school was assigned to go back. I think 53 schools or something like that. [Each school was] supposed to have its staff outside running a picket, with signs, coffee, donuts, parents, allies, to generate some social media, [and] with a few different hashtags to unify the message. Citywide, the union leadership was bringing politicians around on something like a tour of different schools that day, where they were going to speak about the importance of a safe reopening and just lay out the campaign for safe schools and needing more money for safe reopening, all that stuff. Then at the end of the day, after the press conference, after all the school-based actions, we, Working Educators Caucus, said, “Hey, also let’s all meet at 440 [the school district headquarters], and we’ll have another end-of-day rally to lay out our demands as members and parents and students.”

So the work action was organized by your broader union, the PFT?

It was called for by PFT. I can’t in good faith use the word “organized,” because all they did was call for it and then not organize it. The PFT didn’t do anything other than send an email.

Did the Caucus do any organizing in response? If so, what did it look like?

Heck, yeah! Well, not officially. Unofficially, we got the same email that every member got, saying, “Hey, Monday we’re not teaching. Go ahead and teach outside and show up with everybody.” It wasn’t even clear, like what do you do when you need to go to the bathroom? So we spent the whole weekend calling up everyone we knew, calling up a lot of people we had never spoken to before, and saying, “Hey, does your school need help understanding the leadership’s call for this work action on Monday?”

Invariably people said, “Oh, my God, thank you, yes. We have no idea how to do this thing we were just told to do.” In that way, we helped organize it. We rented four generators for schools, just so they could have power to charge their laptop while teaching on the sidewalk, and brought over propane heaters and food and all that stuff, precisely the sort of thing that the [PFT] leadership should have done as a follow-up to their call to action, but did not. They did it maybe at two schools, because that’s where the press conference was.

Can you tell me more about the rally at the end of the day? Who organized it and what did it look like?

It was a rally planned by Working Educators for the Monday after the work action. We thought it was very possible that the work action itself would get canceled by the [PFT] leadership, in case the district decided, “Oh, never mind, we’re not reopening tomorrow.” We thought that that was a likely scenario, that the district would back down. We wanted to have something still happening, even if the district backed down.

We thought, “Okay, even if people aren’t teaching on the sidewalk tomorrow, you don’t want to tell them to do nothing,” and so we planned a rally for 4:00 PM or 5:00 PM that Monday, and had always kept that as the event that will always happen, no matter what happens. That rally was simply a place to articulate, “We’re looking out for the safety of students and families, there’s money to do this right, screw anybody who’s trying to make this boneheaded decision to reopen too quickly.” We were just going to say that at the school district, and it turned out to be a pretty big event. There were a couple hundred people that showed up.

Did any other local organizations support the rally?

Politicians, they weren’t told not to go, but pretty much they took a risk and decided to go to a Working Educators event, and they all showed up still, which was amazing. Then also, the DSA in Philly has a lot of PFT members within the DSA, but they’ve been very enthusiastic in trying to link up a labor coalition in the city. On the day of that rally, we also had the Municipal Garbage Workers came out in support of our action. The Vice President of a Teamsters local came out and supported our action. Those are both Black-led unions. And then a few different city council people.

It sounds like the Caucus did a lot of organizing, for both the work action and the rally later in the day. Do you think that the PFT ended up taking credit for the organizing that the Caucus was doing behind the scenes?

You could say that the [PFT] leadership co-opted the work action, and then created their own events that took the energy of the work action and gained credit for it. I mean, honestly, Working Educators had been petitioning members and union staffers all week. “Hey, we can’t go in on Monday. We need to have a work action.” We got stonewalled on that suggestion until Friday evening, until the union was like, “Oh, actually, we’re going to have a work action.” It was a good example of us as a union Caucus managing up, and in so doing, yeah, the union leadership got credit for its leadership in that action. Also because it called for a work action, it greatly enhanced the number of people participating in it.

I mean, they did not participate in our rally, the after-school rally, but there were so many other precedents that day that I think it was sort of a minor detail. [Most union members just knew] that the union leadership said, “teachers don’t go and teach today,” that they had some press conferences, and then boom, there was this rally. People just assumed that our rally was part of the leadership’s plan for the day. We maybe intentionally did not overbrand it as a Working Educators event, so that people were free to interpret it as something union-sponsored if they wanted to.

Were there any partnerships that were helpful in event organizing? I am wondering about partnerships between the Caucus or PFT and local community organizations or parents?

Here and there, yes. Some schools naturally had community groups aligned with them. Many community groups and parent groups offered help wherever they could. It was all a pretty quick-moving thing. I would say actually I think of local elected officials as being the most helpful at giving schools support. You could call up Elizabeth Fiedler or Kendra Brooks’ office or Helen Gym’s office and say, “Hey, we really could use an media person here. Who could help us out?” Or, “Hey, we would love to take a photo. You know, if Senator Nikil [Saval]’s about, can you swing by and take a picture with us?” Then that state senator’s office would come by with coffee and donuts and take a picture, help them get these actions support and publicity. That was an important detail.

Then I think a lot of the elected officials might have done some of the work of reaching out to community organizations and said, “Hey, follow me today. Come on, Juntos, [a local community organization], join me, or clergy, come with me. I’m going to be doing the schools tour today.”

Why did the Caucus decide to take leadership in doing some of that nitty-gritty work to make the action successful on the Monday?

There are a few reasons for that. One, because it was a smart thing to do to keep schools safe and to keep power in our union, and to make sure that members felt respected and that their needs were met. That work action was essential to preserving dignity and safety for everybody. That’s why WE Caucus supported it, because the work action makes sense. Secondly, it helps Working Educators as a power-seeking entity to be really helpful when people are in moments of desperate need, and to do so unpretentiously and efficiently. Those are the two main reasons why Working Educators was involved, because that work action matters, and it builds the power of our union and gives us the ability to make public schools better. Also, when Working Educators does something helpful at a moment of great need, it’s good for our brand.

I know that slates of Working Educators Caucus members have run for election twice now, but as of yet have not gained elected leadership positions within the PFT. This has led to a contentious relationship with the union. The Caucus has continued to organize and strive to build its power, and it seems like COVID has offered an opportunity to build more power and mobilize union members. Let’s shift course a little bit though. Can you tell me about how you feel about the agreement that was arrived at with the district?

I think that many people feel that the agreement is a demonstration of us having won the vaccination plan, so a demonstration of us having won the replacement of those shitty wall fans for more robust air quality enhancement is a demonstration of our union having gained a lot through our work action. I think many people have just learned the lesson, “Hey, we fought and we won.” That’s a good lesson. Many people learned that.

Right now the question is, “Okay, we’ve got this agreement, we’re reopening.” I think most people accept that that’s the case, and now we have pivoted to trying to help people, help members, assure fidelity on those promises that were made about what opening looks like, what safety looks like. We’re doing a lot of providing members with checklists and, “Call this number and we’ll come out to help your school, if it’s not as safe as we were promised it would be.” We’re doing a lot of rule enforcement right now as a caucus and as a union.

I am assuming that involves a lot of work on the ground with members. It’s not just that the district promised to provide better ventilation, but it’s also that the members are now checking and ensuring that that is being done by the district, and then enforcing it.

Yes, and the Caucus is having weekly phone banks to call every school that’s opening and say, “Hey, how’s it going in your school? Did you see our checklist? Do you need help with this? Is this really what’s happening?” It’s been fascinating, because we’ve learned some schools are like, “Yeah, we don’t have any hand sanitizer, but we’re afraid to say something,” or another school saying, “Hey, yeah, thanks. I’m so glad you got this hotline we could call. Our COVID tests are expired. They’re not even valid tests.” Yeah, we’re trying to help people who don’t know what to do when they find that their school is not as good as it should be.

Who established the hotline? Is that run by the Caucus?

Yes, and there’s a second one run by the [PFT] union.

Where do you think the PFT stands on the reopening of schools in the district right now?

My guess is that the union leadership is tired of arguing, and they want to see reopening happen too. It’s just like internally, the union leadership is definitely not in the spirit of criticizing the district’s non-follow-through on its promises right now. The union leadership is quiet. I read that as them not wanting to continue to argue against reopening.

Okay, so the union leadership is quiet, but WE is not?

Pretty much.

Do you think that the Caucus’ grassroots organizing work actually influenced the union and led it to take action during COVID-19?

A 100 percent. That’s what I mean by this has been a demonstration of us managing up. We had gotten random emails from teachers who just decided, “Hey, by the way, Caucus, I’m sorry I didn’t vote for you guys.” We’ve gotten like 10 of those emails. “You guys clearly are doing work that’s helping all the members,” or, “I had no idea what Working Educators was until you helped my school out with that work action.” It couldn’t be more obvious that the leadership is just taking cues from the Caucus on most of its business.

We came out with this Google form checklist. “Is your school safe enough? Does your school meet the Memorandum of Agreement with the district?” We sent it out, and literally 3 days later, the union came out with a facsimile survey for members. “Is your school adhering to the guidelines?” It was somehow a worse document, but basically, yeah. I mean, if we wear a purple gown on Monday, you can guarantee that Jerry Jordan [the President of PFT] is going to have the same purple gown on by the end of the week, and then say, “This is my idea.” It’s like, “Okay, weird.”

Give our union leadership ideas and they run with all of them, or half of them, or they pervert them and try them again, but they don’t have a lot of fresh ideas, quite honestly. I mean the work action itself, we were demanding, we need to go on strike on Monday and they told us “no, no, no, no, no” until finally all the members agreed with us and the leadership said, “Oh, okay, we’re going to go on strike on Monday.”

What do you think needs to happen next for Philadelphia schools during COVID-19?

I would like to go back to schools. I think there’s a very feasible way. I’ve always believed like, “Let’s just teach in parking lots under tents, or with heaters outside.” I would like to see some return to school, any fashion. If it’s outside, fine. Sports have started up again for high school as of a week and a half ago, and that’s been wonderful for student mental health.

This is a time to take the fatigue of battle against opening and reopening, and now talk about a positive vision for what do we do with reinvestment in schools. Once we’ve answered the critical, urgent health questions, now, what kind of schools do we want to rebuild? What should robust summer learning look like?

What do we do with this great bonanza of cash that just came through from Congress? Where do we spend it? How do we spend it? When do we spend it? That is precisely what a union should be articulating right now, and get members really excited about, “This is what schools deserve.” Our union contract is up in August, so we are immediately in a contract battle, and that battle will be fought and won over whether or not the public supports reinvestment in public schools.

I think that our union leadership needs to do as much as it can to get everybody on board about, “Here’s what schools need. Here’s what it’ll cost. Oh, and by the way, here’s the contract that corresponds to all those noble goals about making schools work.” That’s my vision of what should happen right now.

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Rhiannon Maton, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at SUNY Cortland. Maton, a former active supporting member of Philadelphia’s Caucus of Working Educators, researches teacher activism and union organizing, and has been published in journals including Curriculum Inquiry and Workplace: A Journal For Academic Labor.

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