Hunger strike against school closures begins in Philadelphia

Protest outside the school district headquarters, Thursday, May 30, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Protest outside the school district headquarters, Thursday, May 30, 2013, in Philadelphia.

The fight over public education in Philadelphia escalated Monday, when two local parents and two school district employees initiated a hunger strike to protest the closure of 23 schools and firing of 3,783 education professionals.

The four hunger strikers camped out on the steps in front of Gov. Tom Corbett's Philadelphia office, where they say they will remain without food until the city and state governments do something to reduce layoffs and improve student safety.

"I care about my daughter and grandson," said hunger striker and parent Earlene Bly in a statement. "I am making this sacrifice to make sure they have safe schools. I am fasting to show my family and the city how serious this situation is." Bly is the mother of a ninth grader and the grandmother of an incoming first grader.

Philadelphia's School Reform Commission approved the closures and layoffs late last month as a drastic fix for the school district's $304 million budget deficit. That budget gap followed deep cuts in state aid for local school districts.

Those to be laid off under the budget plan include 1,202 noontime aides, whose duties include serving food to the students, providing school security, and ensuring student safety. In Philadelphia public schools, those aides are represented by the union Unite Here Local 634, which is working with the hunger strikers. Both of the employees involved in the strike are Local 634 members.

“When the children won’t go to the principal, when they won’t go to their teacher, they go to the student safety staff," hunger striker and Local 634 member Patricia Norris said in a statement.  "They give them love and knowledge.  Without them, school would be a disaster waiting to happen.”

This is not the first time that Unite Here members have employed the hunger strike as a tactic in their campaigns. In 2010, Unite Here Local 11 members employed at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel initiated a hunger strike over a dispute with the company regarding health care benefits.

More recently, in April of this year, Unite Here Local 30 members employed by the Hilton Mission Valley hotel engaged in a hunger strike to protest the firing of nine workers who had not cleared the E-Verify background check process.