Fox Chase resident George Bezanis crowdfunded $5,000 to purchase a billboard on I-95. His message was clear.
By Max Marin
George Bezanis used to grouse with colleagues over beers in dimly lit barrooms on school nights, bemoaning that they, unionized workers represented by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, have worked nearly four years without a contract and five without a raise, and more often than not those gripe sessions used to end with empty glasses and a sense that nothing could be done.
Under Pennsylvania’s Act 46, which went into effect in 2001, teachers in “distressed” school districts such as Philadelphia’s are not guaranteed a contract negotiation. The act also stripped teachers of their right to strike, and they were placed under the vice grip of the School Reform Commission. In short, the toolkit of organized labor has long been denuded for the PFT. Without a strike, how could the teachers make a case for their labor, let alone in light of the school district’s hellishly numerous woes? How could they even gain media exposure?
Sometime in the last year, a lightbulb came on: they would buy a billboard.
“I was really disappointed when the DNC came and the pope came and nothing was brought up,” Bezanis said. “A lot of the ideas just come from the other teachers, and I’m the one that sort of says, you know what, instead of just talking to each other over a beer, let’s do it.”
It soon became clear that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers wouldn’t support a publicity stunt to the tune of, say, the Fraternal Order of Police, which erected a billboard calling for District Attorney Seth Williams’ replacement earlier this year. So Bezanis, a Fox Chase resident, acted alone to shame the city and the school district over the lack of contract and the raise.
He crowdfunded $5,000 through meager donations from parents, teachers and public school advocates. He bought ad space on the heavily trafficked I-95 corridor just as city officials prepared for budget season. The message had sauce: “Welcome to Philadelphia: Where we don’t value our public school children. 5-plus years without a raise for our teachers.”
In April, Bezanis seized on the NFL Draft in the way he had hoped for during other national and international events. He fundraised $2,000 for an aerial banner that flew over the draft festivities on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This time, the message, chosen by donors, had even more punch: “City Hall ❤ Sports But Hates Our Teachers.”
Since starting as a social studies teacher at Central High School in the Logan neighborhood six years ago, Bezanis, 38, has witnessed one contract ratification vote and one extension. For the lion’s share of his tenure, he’s one of the 11,000 PFT members who haven’t seen a pay raise, let alone a contract.
In a recent op-ed, Bezanis noted that he has personally lost $38,958 in promised wages in the time since the contract freeze began in 2013. By his calculations, Central High School staff members have collectively sacrificed more than $2 million. Central is just just one of the district’s 220 public schools. In the meantime, the School District of Philadelphia hemorrhaged teachers, librarians, school nurses and psychiatrists at an alarming clip — including a nearly 4,000 staffer layoff in 2013 — and only began rehiring employees again last year.
Bezanis and others teach on, trying to separate their moonlight activism from their daily lessons.
His theatrics have been met with criticism. This isn’t the way things are done. The union leadership did not expressly approve this message. Who’s the rogue new guy anyway?
That backlash, however, is best seen in the context of PFT’s intraunion political drama. Bezanis is the union’s representative at Central High School. But he also serves as the political secretary on the steering committee for the Caucus of Working Educators, a social justice caucus established within the PFT three years ago by some of the union’s youngish members who were hankering for more grassroots tactics.
Last year, the caucus challenged the union’s 30-year incumbent bargaining collective, the Collective Bargaining Team, which is led by PFT president Jerry Jordan. Ultimately, the incumbent prevailed, but Bezanis and the new caucus crowd had boiled the political waters within the union structure.
“When you have an organization that’s 11,000 large, of course you’re going to have some people who don’t agree with all your methods,” Bezanis said, adding that for now “…the point for partisan politics is done. It’s time to unify. Whenever we have our next elections, we’ll have that discussion then. For now, I really don’t like that type of division. We’re all PFT, regardless of whether you’re in the Caucus of Working Educators or part of the [Collective Bargaining Team].”
Jordan was tied up with negotiations and could not be reached for comment. Right now, Bezanis feels their energies should be focused on a mutual target.
Both the PFT and the Caucus of Working Educators endorsed Mayor Jim Kenney in 2015. On the campaign trail, Kenney, a veteran city councilman, promised to implement a PILOT program (payments in lieu of taxes) as well as a zero-based budgeting plan that would generate hundreds of millions for the cash-strapped school district. Today, the zero-based budgeting proposal has been scrapped for a program-based funding plan. PILOTs are on hold, according to Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt, although the administration continues to beseech the city’s large nonprofit institutions. Under state law, however, PILOT payments are voluntary.
Kenney focused his first year on passing a landmark sugar-sweetened drinks tax, better known as the soda tax. Bezanis says he and other caucus members had hoped that the PFT would have a role the pre-K programs funded by the soda tax, bringing back more unionized teaching positions, but in the end Kenney opted to outsource those jobs to third-party operators.
Bezanis says he understands the city’s financial straits, but compares PFT’s treatment to other unions that do work with the city.
“We’re the largest union in the city, but we’re the weakest,” Bezanis said. “Would they do this to any other profession or union? It’s a profession that’s 80 percent women. It’s sexist. It’s all about the building trades. It’s all about the male-dominated unions. When you talk about the female-dominated unions, the PFT, they don’t give us a contract, and then they outsource our jobs.”
The last offer made by the school district was for a $150 million contract. Jordan counteroffered with a $550 million contract, which he said would make up for lost wages that have been frozen at 2012 levels the last four years. But it was a nonstarter for the school district, which is planning around a projected $900 million budget deficit by 2021.
Hitt said that the Kenney administration has been trying to facilitate an agreement among the union, the district and the School Reform Commission since the mayor took office. “We were at the table every day last week — and we’ll be at the table every day this week,” she wrote via email.
After the school district’s recent discovery of a $65 million annual windfall, the PFT asked it be put entirely toward the teachers’ contract. In response, school district spokesman Harold Whack told the Inquirer that the PFT contract would bleed the windfall and leave “no money for educational investments for children.”
Things are heating up more than expected.
On Monday, May 1, the school district reported that about 1,000 teachers were absent. Many but not all of them attended a protest over the contract. No more than 10 percent of school teachers may take a leave of absence. Teachers who took an unapproved absence will be subject to discipline.
“The School District was aware of the planned action and the potential for a number of absences on Monday,” Whack wrote in a prepared statement to the Northeast Times. “We have been actively working with our principals and substitute providers to ensure that there will be no disruption in education for our students. We thank all the teachers and school staff who are in school every day putting the education of the children of Philadelphia first.” ••