Philly hunger strikers fast for safe schools

PHILADELPHIA – “This is breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every day, for eight days,” said Patricia Norris as she held up her bottle of water.

Norris works as a food service assistant at the Cayuga School in North Philadelphia and is one of a group of school employees and parents on a “water only” fast outside Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s regional office on South Broad St. here.

Norris, a member of UNITE HERE, Local 634, says she and the others are there to protest the school district’s deep staff cuts and to bring all the “safety staff” back to work in September. “Victory for us would be to give the schools all the money they need; put the money where it belongs! Without the safety staff public schools would be a disaster,” she declared.

Norris tied the issues behind the hunger strike to the coming elections: “Corbett and the mayor need to remember that elections are coming. I know Mayor (Michael) Nutter can’t run for his office again, but he’ll run for something.”

The hunger strikers say they are willing to stay as long as it takes. UNITE HERE is providing medical personnel to monitor the strikers’ health as their fast continues.

The School District says that its funding shortfall is forcing it to adopt a “doomsday budget” and lay off 3,800 workers, including teachers, support staff and administrators. The district is threatening to open schools in September with no counselors or librarians.

The city says it needs over $300 million to restore the layoffs and has asked for an additional $60 million from the city and $120 million from the state. The City Council has passed a $2 a pack increase in the cigarette tax, which would raise an estimated $74 million, or more than what the District has asked that it contribute.

Gov. Corbett, on the other hand, has promised no additional funding despite the deep cuts that Harrisburg imposed on districts across the state over the last two years.

The public school crisis in Philadelphia has brought a broad array of forces into action in protest, including school employee, student and community groups. The largest coalition, Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), called for the City Council to provide additional funding by raising the business use and occupancy tax.

Much attention and anger is also focused on the governor’s role. The main stream press here has noted that state budget cuts are being felt across Pennsylvania, that around three-quarters of the state’s school districts will have to cut instructional programs and that nearly half will have to increase to raise class sizes during the coming school year.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, normally no friend of the teachers’ union, has even said that the governor appears to be trying to set up the union (American Federation of Teachers, Local 3) to take the blame for the whole crisis when they refuse to accept layoffs and pay and benefit cuts.

The hunger strikers in Philadelphia are making their mark. They are being recognized as a visible and courageous part of a broad movement that is building around the issue of adequate funding for public education.

Photo: UNITEHERE member and hunger striker Patricia Norris holds up eight fingers to show her eight days of fasting and living on water only.



Ben Sears
Ben Sears

Ben Sears is a retired teacher and AFT member in Philadelphia. He is the author, as John Bennett Sears, of the book "The Electrical Unions and the Cold War" (International Publishers 2019).