From AFT-PA, an affiliate of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. The officers of the State Federation thank President Kirsch on his many decades of extraordinary service to our movement.
AFT Pennsylvania President Ted Kirsch announced today that he would not seek re-election after seven terms as head of the statewide teachers’ union. Kirsch became AFTPA president in 2005.
“It’s time to hand the reins to the next generation of leaders,” said Kirsch, who was president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers when he became president of AFT Pennsylvania following the death of Albert Fondy. “I’m proud of the organization that we’ve built, and I know that the staff and new leaders will continue to advocate for better learning conditions for students and working conditions for teachers and staff and protect the hard-won rights of working people.”
Kirsch will preside over his last AFT Pennsylvania convention June 28-30 at the Hilton Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, where new officers will be elected. AFT Pennsylvania represents 26,000 members – teachers, paraprofessionals and support staff in public, private and charter schools; early childhood educators and staff; college and university faculty and staff; and state professional employees in Pennsylvania and Delaware.
AFT President Randi Weingarten called Kirsch a “mentor, friend and colleague for over three decades.”
“He has been a soldier in the fight for working families in Pennsylvania, as well as a leader in our movement and a fighter for public education. Ted understands how to move our values to action and has left his mark on all of us,” Weingarten said. “On a personal note, Ted and his successor at the PFT, Jerry Jordan, were the first people to convince me to leave the UFT and run for the presidency of the AFT – I will never forget that lunch.”
Kirsch was born in Philadelphia, educated in public schools and raised in a union home, where his mother was a member of the Bookbinders Union and his father was a United Auto Workers Union and Meat Cutters’ Union member and activist. Kirsch graduated from West Philadelphia High School, earned a bachelor’s degree in education from West Chester State Teachers College (now West Chester University) and a master’s degree in education from Temple University.
“Ted is a true believer in Samuel Gompers’ maxim, ‘what does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice,’” Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale said. “For more than 30 years as a vice president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, Ted has been a valued advisor to three state federation presidents as a voice of thoughtful reason and passion for workers’ rights.”
He taught middle and high school social studies and college-level labor history and long after he left the classroom he often opens remarks at meetings saying, “As a history teacher, let me give you a little bit of the history…” Kirsch has always believed that to know where you are going, you first have to know where you’ve been. He taught the first African-American history course as a major credit course and courses on labor history, collective bargaining, and theory of the labor movement at Penn State University.
“Many years before I was elected Secretary-Treasurer, Ted Kirsch – always the teacher – taught me a lot about organizing and empowering union members,” said PA AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Frank Snyder. “Ted has built a legacy of labor leadership that many union brothers and sisters will continue to learn from for years to come.”
Kirsch has been a powerhouse in the local, state and national labor movement and in politics. He came up through the union ranks at a time when, if a union endorsed a candidate, its members voted for that candidate – which made Kirsch an important ally or enemy to people in office and those aspiring to public office throughout his career. His office walls are covered with photographs of Kirsch with labor leaders and political luminaries, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Sen. Ted Kennedy.
“Contacts aren’t won only at the table. You have to be able to pick up the phone and call senators and representatives, governors, council members and community leaders to close a deal. Good union leaders negotiate constantly, on many fronts,” Kirsch said.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Kirsch wasn’t a tough negotiator at the table. During a particularly contentious negotiation with a cantankerous superintendent, Philadelphia school district administrators nicknamed him the “Darth Vader of education,” which didn’t stop him from winning 11 percent in raises and beating back proposals that teachers and staff considered outrageous and bad education policy. In 2004, he called a strike on Friday after school, imploring PFT members to “put down your pencils and pick up your picket signs.” He and his negotiating team had a tentative agreement in time for schools to open Monday morning, without students missing a single class.
Although Kirsch described himself as a “traditional union leader” in a 1990s newspaper interview, he often was on the cutting edge of labor-management collaboration and education practice. Kirsch was one of the first union leaders to recognize that charter schools weren’t going away and fought to unionize charter school teachers and give them the same rights and protections other public school teachers enjoy.
He fought for – and won – progressive contract language that set up programs for peer leadership and teacher-to-teacher coaching to improve educational practices. And he constantly sought allies, whether they worked in administration or at a grassroots organization – to fight for small class sizes and adequate and fair funding for public education. In his role as PFT president, he developed an appeals process for union employees facing dismissal. “Teachers are so important to the education process that we have to support the best teachers and counsel out of the profession people who aren’t effective in the classroom,” he said. “When we started talking about creating a Peer Intervention Program, the idea that a union would encourage ineffective teachers to find another profession was pretty novel and controversial.”
Kirsch began his labor career as a union building representative at Overbrook High School in 1965. He was a PFT district staff representative – representing PFT members working in dozens of schools – from 1970-1981, was elected vice president and appointed director of staff by then-PFT President Marvin Schuman from 1983 to 1990 and was elected PFT president in July 1990. He is a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, chair of AFT’s Defense Committee and a member of AFT’s influential Executive Committee. He has traveled across the globe learning about education abroad and bringing ideas back home to share with colleagues. He has been an officer of the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia AFL-CIO, on the board of the Philadelphia Area Labor-Management Committee and a delegate to labor and political conventions.
He stepped down from the PFT – handing the presidency to his long-time associate and director of staff Jerry Jordan in 2005. “After I was elected AFTPA president, I became interested in strengthening the statewide affiliate,” Kirsch said. “I wanted to provide more support to our union locals, help train their presidents, officers and key leaders and grow the union by mobilizing existing members and attracting new members. I also believed AFT Pennsylvania could and should play a more prominent role in state education policy and political advocacy.”
Today, AFT Pennsylvania has 58 union locals in two states and Kirsch has been a mentor to many of their leaders. “At a time when unions are under attack, we have continued to organize, mobilize and build solidarity,” he said.
Outside the union, Kirsch has a reputation for generosity and activism – walking picket lines for other unions and workers, knocking on doors for candidates and getting involved in community and charitable activities. He was on the picket lines – and went to jail – during PFT’s two most bitter strikes in 1973 and 1983 – a strike that lasted six weeks with picketers at every school in frigid January temperatures. Even today, at 79, Kirsch walks picket lines with his members and shouts words of encouragement into megaphones to keep members strong and united.
During his career, he has volunteered or served on the boards of numerous organizations, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, United Way of Southeast Pennsylvania, Ben Franklin Partnership, Philadelphia Schools Collaborative, Philadelphia High School Academies, State of Israel Bonds, World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, Operation Understanding, President Clinton’s Summit for America’s Future, the Anti-Defamation League and B’nai Zion.
His many honors and awards include the Histadrut Menorah Award, Cheyney University Medallion Award, Columbus Forum President’s Award, City of Hope Spirit of Life Award, United Way Community Service Award, Knights Legion of Goodness Award, Israel Bonds Labor Achievement Award, West Philadelphia High School Outstanding Alumnus award, ORT Mentors’ Award, Children’s Village Recognition Award, Jewish National Fund Tree of Life Award, B’nai B’rith Educator’s Service to the Profession Award, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell Award, Peggy Browning Award, United Way Irv Sannit Volunteer Award, Urban League Whitney Young Award, Pennsylvania Labor History John Brennan Award, Bayard Rustin Achievement Award, City of Hope, Ambassador Award and Girard College Service Award.