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A Rank-and-File Teachers’ Movement Takes On Philadelphia’s Toxic Schools

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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 are 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.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on February 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.

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Do Fewer OSHA Inspectors Matter?

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One sign that anti-OSHA conservatives are getting nervous about articles (and television appearances) highlighting the declining number of OSHA inspectors are articles questioning whether government plays a useful role in protecting workers. In this case, the Reason Foundation, which “advances a free society by developing, applying, and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law,” has concluded that reducing the number of OSHA inspectors has no effect on workplace safety.

When I see an article entitled Will Deregulation Kill Workers? by Reason Magazine assistant editor Christian Britschgi, normally I wouldn’t bother to give them any undeserved attention, but some of the arguments he uses are, unfortunately, still commonly used by conservatives in the media and Republicans in Congress, and from time to time we need to expose them.

Based on writings by Bentley University economist John Leeth, Britschgi is basically saying that OSHA isn’t needed because “Employers have much stronger incentives than OSHA to provide a safe workplace.” What are these “stronger incentives” that make OSHA enforcement superfluous?

Workers Compensation: Workers comp, they note, grows more expensive with new injuries and accidents.  And it’s much more significant than OSHA penalties because “workers comp policies cost employers $91.8 billion in 2014…. Total OSHA penalties in that same year totaled only $143.5 million.”

OK, well first, if those numbers are relevant, then that sounds like a great argument to increase OSHA penalties significantly. But the fact is, because State legislatures and courts have undermined workers compensation benefits for injured workers, workers comp covers less and less of the real cost of workplace injuries and illnesses, according numerous studies cited in a 2015 OSHA report, Adding Inequality to Injury:

workers’ compensation payments cover only a small fraction (about 21 percent) of lost wages and medical costs of work injuries and illnesses; workers, their families and their private health insurance pay for nearly 63 percent of these costs, with taxpayers shouldering the remaining 16 percent.

Moreover, most workers injured or made ill on the job don’t even receive workers compensation and vulnerable and low-wage workers fare even worse.  Finally, compensating workers for occupational disease is almost non-existent. One study estimates that as many as 97 percent of workers with occupational illness are uncompensated.

Labor markets: Workers would rather work where it’s safe, so they will naturally take jobs working in safer companies rather than unsafe companies. Unsafer companies will therefore be forced to pay workers more to attract them to their unsafe workplaces.  This will provide a natural incentive for employers to make their workplaces safer because if their workplaces are safer, they won’t have to pay workers as much.

Now I’m not a credentialed economist, but even I can find major holes in this theory.  First, such a theory relies on workers having perfect information about which companies are safer than others. Now, this is interesting, because that’s exactly the theory the Obama administration used when issuing its electronic recordkeeping standard. Companies would be required to send their injury and illness information to OSHA and OSHA would post that information, allowing workers to choose safer companies. What’s interesting is that corporate America and Trump’s OSHA has done everything it can to ensure that employer safety records are not made public, from discouraging press releases to opposing the OSHA recordkeepign regulation, claiming that such information unjustly “shames” employers.

The “labor market” theory also assumes that workers would be able to simply and easily move from one (unsafe) employer to another without any loss of income –even assuming there is a safer employer down the street. Obviously that’s often not possible and in any case, that’s easier for high wage workers to lose a little income by changing jobs than lower wage employees who may be living paycheck to paycheck.  And if there are enough desperate workers who need a job, any job, that higher paying, unsafe job isn’t going to pay more for very long.  You’ll have the more common race-to-the-bottom, rather than a race to the top.

Finally, this equation puts workers in a position of choosing between safe jobs or better pay. If you happen to be in a post-Obamacare world with no health insurance and have a sick kid, you might be inclined to take the unsafe, higher paying job.  This is not a choice that we want workers to be forced to make — either from the viewpoint of morality, or the general public welfare. The whole point of the Occupational Safety and Health Act was to eliminate the need for workers to ever have to choose between their jobs and their lives, or better pay and their live.

The ability to sue over workplace injuries and health hazards: Huh? Employees don’t have the ability to sue over workplace injuries. The deal when workers compensation laws were first created is that this would be a “no-fault” system; workers give up the right to sue their employer, in return for relatively certain access to benefits following their injury. (Or at least that was the theory.) Britschgi would have known that (and taken safety and health more seriously) if he had read this article and listened to the accompanying video.

That fact that Britschgi, an assistant editor of Reason Magazine (and presumably his superiors) don’t know that workers can’t sue their employers should have sent this article directly to my Trash folder, so why am I bothering to even address it? I mean, for all I know, he’s 18 years old and this is his first job. Give the kid a break.

Because, as I said above, clearly he is not alone in his ignorance. There are undoubtedly lots of other people out there who think that workers can sue their employers. And easily move to safer jobs. And just rely on workers comp if they get hurt.

The bottom line is that more cops on the beat will make drivers drive more safely, just as more OSHA inspectors will make employers provide safer workplaces. It’s as American as law and order.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on January 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).


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