John Ryan, former PFT President, endorses Working Educators

John Ryan was the President of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers from 1963 to 1967. Afterwards he became a full-time staffer with the union and served as the chief negotiator until 1979. In December 2019, he sat down with Adam Sanchez to talk about the union’s history, its relevance for today, and why he is endorsing the Caucus of Working Educators in the upcoming PFT election.

Adam Sanchez: When did you start teaching in Philadelphia and how did you get involved in the labor movement?

John Ryan: I came from a labor background. My dad had come over from Ireland when he was about 21 and worked for the Commercial Telegrapher Company. He came over in 1904 and shortly after they were on strike. He was chief of the pickets. So when I started teaching in 1952 I joined the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). I started at Spruance Elementary School. And I increased the number of AFT members by 50% there. There were two members of the faculty who were members and I joined so there were now three. Most elementary schools had nobody. 

I think the top PFT school in the city was Olney. I think they had about 25 members and that was just because the president of the Union was a member of the faculty. And so I applied for membership as soon as I got to Spruance.

So I got active in the union and eventually New York teachers won collective bargaining rights and we decided that we would try it here. I became president in 1963 and at that point, we had 500 members out of about 10,500 teachers.

John Ryan with members of the Caucus of Working Educators Slate for PFT Leadership

Sanchez: And in 1965 you began bargaining the first PFT contract with the district. What were some of the issues in that first contract?

Ryan: We had a system of priorities. We agreed on 20 things that should be done, but only if the board had the money for them. We were now up to over 1000 members. So now 10% of the people in the schools were union members. 

The former mayor, Richardson Dilworth, then became the president of the School Board. Dilworth came in and said, “you can have the first three priorities, but that's it.” The first one was a pay increase, the second one was hospitalization costs. I think the third was class size. I taught 52 elementary school kids in a class, when I started in the 1950s. There weren’t enough chairs. You had to assign them places along the window. And so you knew why kids would drop out. In the first contract they agreed to cap the class sizes at 39.

But the fourth priority was doubling and tripling the extra-curricular pay for coaches, after school activities, etc. Dilworth said no, and we said, we think you have the money for it. So we had our first strike — part time — in January of 1966 into the spring. We called a strike of all the activities involved.

One of the problems was the kids working at the supermarket after school were making more than the teachers who were teaching them how to play an instrument. So we had a strike of after school activities. There was no city championship basketball game. The kids from West Philly went dribbling the basketball through the administration building. And people really got upset with Dilworth. So eventually he gave in. 

People saw they could go out on strike, they could get what they said they were going out on strike for, and nobody really got hurt. And within a year, they made up all the money that they lost by going out. That was the strike that made the union.

Sanchez: But strikes by public employees were illegal at this time, right?

Ryan: Yeah in 1970 a lot of the public employee unions got together and we got legislation passed that made it legal to collectively bargain as public employees and legal to strike up to a point. But up until then, the Supreme Court said it's probably unconstitutional to have collective bargaining for public employees. If you said you were going to plan a strike, they could get an injunction to stop the meeting from even talking about a strike. 

Sanchez: You also went out on strike in 1970?

Ryan: Right, in 1970, they passed the bill, but it wouldn't take effect for 90 days. So we struck the last few days that it was illegal to strike in 1970. Dilworth had locked us out for the first few days of contract. We said we would work under the old contract. He said, “No you won’t” and closed the schools. Boy did people get upset with him. 

Sanchez: How did you get teachers to take an illegal action? How were these strikes organized?

Ryan: At the top, we had strong voices. We had overwhelmingly a great staff. And we had a lot of communication with the membership. We would have two copies of the 8-to-16-page PFT Reporter going out per month, and we would have a weekly 2-to-4-page leaflet — I think we called it “countdown” — going out reporting on things in the interim. And the executive board meetings were open to members. 

We would start negotiating by giving the members the list of proposals we wanted to negotiate over before it went to the board. We would study other contracts. We would know what some of the problems are and then we’d discuss them with the membership. We’d have a series of meetings where the members could then agree, add to, subtract, modify, whatever. This way the members knew what we were negotiating over and we knew what they cared about.

Sanchez: Today one of the claims of the current CB leadership is that for the last decade their hands were tied and they couldn’t win major improvements because state control meant that they could only legally bargain over wages and benefits and they could not strike. But it seems to me that the history of the union shows that whether legal or not, if you're organized you can bargain over what you want to bargain over. Right?

Ryan: Right, we would talk about Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, different civil disobedience movements that were going on. We’d compare ourselves to them. We’d say, like they said, “If the law is unjust, you don't obey it.” 

In terms of what you can bargain over; when we started bargaining the school district negotiator would constantly say, “you can’t put that in the contract. That’s not in any labor contract. Can you show me a labor contract where that is in?”

One year we had the contract clauses all in print form and the board’s negotiator gave them back to us and beside almost every clause in the packet was I.M.P. “inherent managerial prerogative.” Meaning this doesn't go into a labor contract. And he cited state law, or city law, or whatever. 

But we’d hold firm because these were issues that were important to our members and they would eventually start negotiating on them. They’d tell us why it wasn't a good idea or why they couldn't do it. But we held firm. If you have the support of the membership, you can negotiate over what you want to negotiate over.

And now they think it’s legal to strike. But it will only be legal until somebody goes in for an injunction. The judges are not going to sit there and say, well, you can strike because it’s legal. And that’s what happened to us in 1972-73.

Sanchez: Let’s talk about that strike. That was one of the longest strikes in the union’s history. 

Ryan: Right, we had two strikes in the one school year, a total of something like 11 and a half weeks. And by this time, we had increased to paraprofessionals, as well as Get Set, which was a pre-kindergarten program where they were paid miserably. They made a fraction of what the teachers in the regular schools were getting. So we had just gotten the right to negotiate for them. That was a big issue.

Sanchez: And during this strike, Frank Rizzo was mayor. He’s been in the news a lot lately, because his statue still stands in front of city hall and many want it removed. I think most people know him now as the anti-black power, anti-LGBT rights police chief and mayor, but he was also the mayor going up against the teachers’ union during these strikes.

Ryan: I remember I think the morning we’re going to go back out on strike in January and the lawyers and the judges all went into chambers to discuss things. And we're all sitting around outside and all the reporters are there. And a reporter with channel 10 asks me, “John, what do you think about what the mayor said about you today?” I said “I didn't hear what the mayor had to say about me today.” And he says, “you didn't hear what he said? He said, ‘Ryan don't run this city.’” And I snapped back “Ryan do too.” And that became a chant on the picket lines and people had it on picket signs.

A framed news clipping of the conflict between John Ryan and Mayor Rizzo

Sanchez: And Rizzo threw you in jail during that strike?

Ryan: Right, they got a judge to call an injunction. Frank Sullivan, the union president, and I went to jail for 19 days. Rizzo had friends including the cardinal Archbishop. My wife was a daily communicant and went to mass every day. But because the Archbishop was close to the mayor, he decreed that no priest or nun should visit me or my family.

During that strike there were hundreds arrested. They would pick a school. They would load the buses up and they all got arrested. But Rizzo came to regret doing that immediately. Because the labor leaders then went to him and said, “you're going to have trouble from us. We’re going to close this city down.”

Sanchez: Right, during this strike the AFL-CIO called a general strike. Was it because you had built relationships with other labor unions in the city or the national organization helped organize it?

Ryan: Both, actually the main reason for it was Johnny Morris, who was president of Teamsters Local 115. Johnny was tough as nails. And he got a lot of it done. There were a lot of other local labor leaders who supported us as well. The president of the council wasn't very keen on it, but he went along with it mainly because so many of the powerful unions were on our side. But that was a big reason why we settled. I think we would've gone through June if they hadn’t called that General Strike.

We came to an agreement on the 27th and we had listed five things that we wanted. We got a lot more than that, but we got every one of those five, including big raises for the Get Set program. I think the minimum wage increase by the end of the contract was 20% and for the Get Set program, some of the people went up 60% in three years. We got the class size down to 35. And then by the time I left in 1979 it was down to 33, which is pretty much where it’s still at today.

Sanchez: How did you deal with the argument that there is no money available for public education? We constantly hear this argument today and I’m sure you did also. 

Ryan: We always guaranteed to the members that there were no funds. And that's why in many of the contracts, the weight of the increases comes at the end. You don't have to spend an awful lot more this year. But next year and the following year you need to find the funds. You just go in and you make a case: This is what we need. This is what the district needs. This is what the city needs. We have to go get the money, we'll do whatever we can, whatever you want us to do, to try getting more money out of the city, state, the federal government, whoever. But you have to put in these things to have better schools for teachers and students. If you don't put them in the contract, they're never going to find the money. 

Sanchez: You have come out in support of the Caucus of Working Educators in the upcoming PFT election this February. Can you talk about what led you to this position?

Ryan: I started going through the contract, and I could not believe what they took out. So I always was hoping somebody would get in there to bring back what has been lost. Things have just gotten worse. This case of the woman who got cancer. That is a shocker. There were kids in that class year after year. That stuff doesn't develop overnight. God only knows when it will all come out in these kids. 

The thing that moved me most with WE was when they had people going to the streets on May Day 2017 during school time, taking personal leave, and going out there to protest not having a contract. I thought, “This is a group that not just wants a change, they’re willing to do something about it. Since then, I’ve been to two of the meetings, including the Para Power rally and I just think the caucus has the energy, the speaking ability, and the skills to not just say here's what we want, but to energize and organize the people who are in the audience to do something about it. And they know that if we have to strike, we’ll strike.


Check out our video from when the WE Slate for PFT Leadership sat down with John Ryan:

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