A Brief Labor History of Philadelpha's Public Schools, Part 2

 By George Bezanis

This post is the first in an occasional series; check out Part I here. If there is a part of PFT or labor history that you would like to learn more about, let us know by e-mailing us at [email protected].

Philadelphia has a long history of public education, one of the longest in the United States, if not the world. The Caucus of Working Educators is proud to help keep the flame of this time-honored tradition burning bright. In order to see where WE fit into this history -- and how WE can help shape the future -- one must first delve into the past.


By the end of World War II, every state had not only created a progressive publicly-funded education system, but instituted compulsory education laws as well. Working conditions for the teachers at these public schools, however, were still atrocious. Classes were overcrowded, jobs were dispensed according to whom (not what) a teacher knew, and salaries were arbitrarily raised or lowered each year according to the whim of the state legislature.

If a district was running a deficit, they would often chop off a couple of weeks at the end of June, sending the kids into an early summer break and thereby saving funds by not having to pay the teachers their full salaries.

In 1947, to give you an idea, some "reform-minded" legislators in Harrisburg (the state paid all teacher salaries at the time) attempted to raise the public school teacher salary from an atrociously low $1,400 ($14,739 in 2014 dollars) to a somewhat better $1,950 ($20,530 in 2014 dollars). Philadelphia and Pittsburgh minimums were to be set slightly higher at $2,175 ($22,899 in 2014 dollars), seeing as those two districts subsidized their salaries with local tax dollars as well.

In fact, when President Truman visited Philadelphia's privately-endowed Girard College in 1948, he made front page news across the nation with his off-the-cuff remarks about the state of teaching in America's public schools:

"You young men are lucky to have a school like this in the present day. You have individual attention from your teacher. At the present time our public schools are so overcrowded there are plenty of instances where the teachers cannot call the children by name. The financial situation of our school system is something disgraceful for the richest nation in the world."

Unable to attract the best and the brightest under such poor working conditions and compensation, the college graduation rate of Philadelphia teachers stood at a measly 42%.

The time was ripe for teachers to organize in order to improve their working conditions which would, in turn, improve their students’ learning conditions. It was imperative that teachers made their collective voices be known as they sought changes from within a dysfunctional system.

As America continued down the path of a post-war economic boom, numerous public sector employees sought to unionize. They viewed themselves as being left behind in that post-war prosperity - pointing out that they earned less than factory workers who had not even completed high school - and Philadelphia teachers were no exception.

The public agreed. Union activism among the nation's teachers reached a crossroads in the late 1960s as strikes threatened to erupt all across the country. This New York Times syndicated analysis from 1968 clearly shows why teachers all across the United States finally banded together under one of the two national teacher labor organizations, the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (under the AFT) also launched a successful membership drive during this time and, in 1965, became the exclusive bargaining unit for the city's public school teachers. In 1970, once again due to the teachers’ and the community’s support, Pennsylvania Act 195 was implemented which, for the first time, allowed the state's public employees to strike.

The PFT took advantage of this new law and, from 1970 to 1981, greatly increased its members' wages and working conditions by going on strike 6 times. For example, by 1980 the average Philadelphia teacher was earning $24,000 ($68,382 in 2014 dollars). The city had the highest-paid public school employees in the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, lower class sizes, and seniority/tenure rights that prevented them from being arbitrarily terminated or targeted by vindictive administrators. (For more details, watch the informative PFT History: Solidarity Wins! video.)

As a result of this increased union militancy and willingness to strike, the PFT was able to attract the best and the brightest applicants to Philadelphia’s public schools as the suburbs struggled to keep their salaries competitive. Arguably, all of that changed with the strike of 1981 and is one of the reasons why the current PFT leadership has been reluctant to call for a strike since then.

George Bezanis is caucus member and has been a working educator for ten years, with the last seven in the classrooms of the School District of Philadelphia. He currently works at Central High School as a Social Studies teacher.