By Matteo MacDermant
In 2016, contract negotiations at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) broke down between the administration and AFT 2026 (the college union). The dispute was partially over salary and benefits, but more fundamentally it was about CCP’s future. The union and administration have very different visions for our city’s only public two-year college. The union voted to authorize a strike over those differences on March 28th, sending the administration scrambling to reach a contract deal and avoid a shutdown. On April 12th a deal was signed, securing many victories for the workers, including pay increases and health insurance without premiums. The fight for the future of CCP is, however, far from over. The contract is a small step on the long journey to transform CCP and give Philadelphia’s residents the public college they need and deserve.
CCP as a Business
The administration envisions CCP as a business, with education designed to meet business needs rather than community or student needs. Adjuncts, part-timers, and subcontractors provide non-union labor that is “flexible” or temporary in this arrangement. James Clark, a manager from Philadelphia Aker Shipping summed up this business-first approach well. “CCP and other area colleges should collaborate or coordinate with each other to jointly meet employers’ needs.”
The emphasis is on employer needs. Employers do provide jobs that Philadelphians need. However, employers don’t have an interest in overcoming the many obstacles to graduation facing many CCP students. Workers from the suburbs or from wealthier and more educated neighborhoods are the same to them as workers who might badly need a job but struggle to complete their education. It is easier for the administration to focus resources on high school programs for the “gifted,” students who don’t need assistance, or corporate training programs, which often overlook those most in need. If thousands of students, faculty, and staff must be pushed aside to lower costs and meet business needs, then so be it. That’s just good business.
CCP and AFT 2026 as Working Class Institutions
The union sees CCP not as a business, but as an institution for building working-class communities and providing working-class people with opportunities for a better life. The working class and poor have been excluded from the recent economic recovery. Education is part of the solution.
To deliver on CCP’s original promise of “making higher education affordable and accessible to all Philadelphia residents,” the union made a call for:
- Smaller classrooms
- Diversity fellowship programs
- More counselors, librarians, and support staff
- Pay raises for staff
- Benefit Security without contribution increase
This student-first and worker-first approach affirms every person’s worth. It is a promise made by faculty and staff to ensure the success of all. No student is abandoned because it is too expensive to address their needs. Faculty and staff can only accomplish this, however, if they have the resources to do so.
More for Less
The administration’s original contract proposal would have required new faculty to teach five classes per semester (10 per year), instead of four (8 per year). President Donald Generals calls this course load “industry standard” because area community college professors already teach five. Union Co-President Junior Brainard calls this an unfair comparison for two reasons.
CCP faculty teach more students per semester than area colleges. The union points out that a fifth class would add 20 more students per semester for each member of the science faculty, 30 for English, 40 for math, and 56 for computer science. This burden is at the expense of students who already pay the highest tuition in the Philly metro area for community college.
Hazim Hardeman, CCP’s first Rhodes Scholar, said it best. “The students whose parents can afford it get comparatively well-supported faculty and staff at Temple, Drexel, and Penn. The kids who can’t, get overworked faculty and staff at community colleges.” He asks the union to “please fight this reality.” Supported staff and faculty support students.
The second reason further highlights the administration’s neglect of student needs. CCP students primarily come from neighborhoods with high poverty and low educational attainment. More than 50% are over 25, many are single parents, and most are working full time. They are immigrants, first-generation students, and 70% remedial learners. These students have high needs which are routinely ignored before arrival at CCP. They require more, not less attention.
Breaking the Union
The administration attempted to break the union’s collective power and increase their leverage over workers through the Management Rights Clause. This clause would have given management “The right to relieve employees from duty because of lack of work or other reasons” while ensuring that “none of the management rights shall be subject to bargaining or grievances.”
Management would also have the power to:
- Control the academic calendar
- Subcontract to non-union workers
- Reorganize the college, “whether or not it causes a reduction in the working force”
This would mean that anyone could be let go at any time for any reason — and no one would be able to say anything about it. Union Co-President Junior Brainard expressed grave concerns about this arrangement. “If we fear for our jobs,” he said, “We will work to protect them, not challenge and educate our students. We will censor our classrooms and research.” This is a power grab that is not in the best interest of workers or students.
The union is critical to workers, especially those lowest paid, like housekeeper Paula Perry-Gable, who earn as little as $12/hour. “I’ve worked full-time at CCP for 20 years,” Perry-Gable said, “and still I qualify for food stamps.” How can workers support students if they cannot support themselves?
Strong unions are workers’ only defense against being robbed of retirement and healthcare, being fired without cause, or having any control over their working life. Organized workers are also a main pillar of defense for our city’s public institutions. Workers’ rights are students’ rights. Workers and working class students have overlapping needs. Their fight is one and the same. The union knew what was at stake — and on March 28th, they voted to strike.
CCP Votes to Strike
The strike vote acknowledged the stark choices facing workers and students. If the administration could force the union to accept an anti-union agreement, it would be devastating to all. Students and workers of greatest need would pay the highest costs. The union therefore refused to allow this power grab. Instead they asked the administration to implement changes to unburden faculty and staff and raise wages so they can serve their students. One job should be enough.
Workers need the administration’s support in carrying out the college’s mission. Ever-growing classrooms, staff shortages, and long, stressful workweeks hurts workers and students alike. Our students are worth the investment. They deserve our support.
The union voted to strike until the administration restored CCP’s promise of “making higher education affordable and accessible to all Philadelphia residents.”
The strike vote never resulted in a walkout or an active strike. The administration softened their anti-union tone and a contract was negotiated without student disruption. The contract included:
- $15 minimum wage by 2020
- Immediate 5% raise for everyone earning above $15
- 3% annual raises in 2020-21 and 3.5% in 2022
- Health insurance without premiums remains
- Co-pay reimbursement if earning less than $50,000/year
- New faculty teach one extra class per year, instead of two (a compromise)
- The “Management Rights Clause” no longer allows non-union labor, college reorganization, or full control over the academic calendar
The strike pushed CCP into the limelight. Councilpersons David Oh and Helen Gym responded by introducing proposals to restore full funding to CCP, and media coverage is increasing around this issue. Funding by the city for 2020 has now increased to 22%, which is still short the one-third they are supposed to pay, but definitely a step in the right direction. The gains made should be celebrated. Workers and students fought and won many victories. The fight must continue, however, until community college is accessible and affordable (free) to all who walk through the doors at 1700 Spring Garden Street.
Art by Mike Chen