Wednesday’s demonstration and traffic stoppage by members of the Service Employees International Union has caught the attention of School District of Philadelphia officials — and that of a few police officers as well.
A handful of arrests were made during the rally, in which thousands of members of the local chapter, 32BJ, clogged Broad Street in front of school district headquarters. Their membership represents bus drivers, janitors, custodians and basically any employee working in a non-teaching capacity.
SEIU members are angered at the pace of negotiations with the district, along with cuts made to public education, either through austerity measures imposed by the district, or through budgetary cuts from Gov. Tom Corbett.
Members are also outraged at the sheer amount of layoff notices and pink slips their peers are receiving.
“We are here to save our city’s public schools,” said George Ricchezza, Leader of 32BJ’s District 1201, who has himself received a layoff notice — along with the more than 2,700 other school workers in his unit. “Our members — the men and women who keep Philadelphia schools running and who get children to school safely every day — are also parents and community members. The governor and School Reform Commission are taking steps that would devastate their communities.”
For their part, school district officials didn’t have much to say about the rally itself, but did issue a statement about the labor negotiations.
“The district is engaged with 32BJ in good faith efforts to come to an agreement on changes that will result in savings necessary to continue to support educational programs in schools,” read the statement from the School Reform Commission. “Because we are in active negotiations, the district will not comment any further.”
Indeed, the reorganization blueprint submitted by School District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen calls for givebacks and cutbacks throughout the district’s four core sectors — including the shaving of $122 million from the operations budget, and $156 million from the personnel budget. It’s difficult to say if the unions will go along with additional givebacks beyond what is listed in Knudsen’s plan.
The SRC is but one target; the other is Corbett’s budget.
“Governor Corbett is following the national Republican playbook — starve public schools of cash, then use their funding shortfall as an excuse to dismantle and privatize public education,” said Gabe Morgan, Pennsylvania state director for 32BJ SEIU. “He’s protecting tax loopholes for wealthy corporations and Marcellus Shale drillers while punishing our kids.”
Others contend that public schools simply aren’t cared about enough.
“Public schools have not been given a fair shake,” said Ernie Bennett, a member of 32BJ District 1201 and a school engineer in North Philadelphia who has received a layoff notice. “Public schools are not given the resources, the support. They’re trying to put a stigma on public education.”