By Mike Schirtzer
Teacher and UFT Delegate: Leon M. Goldstein High School
Like most classroom teachers, I didn’t attend last weekend’s AFT convention. In fact, few working teachers knew it was going on, or had reason to care. Our delegates represented none of what we believe in and nothing that happened there will make any difference in our classroom. There was no call for Arne Duncan’s resignation, no resolution for a repeal of the Common Core Standards, and no new strategies for increasing union mobilization or supporting our students. Actually nothing of consequence was achieved. Members will go back to their respective locals and continue the same methods: Chicago Teachers Unions (CTU) will the lead the fight against so called reform that hurts our children and profession, while the AFT/UFT leadership will go back to a style of unionism that ensures that none of my friends become any more engaged in union activities.
Our union leaders, who spoke about Common Core, teachers’ evaluations and other “reform” (or what we call “deform”) policies, have not been in the classroom since I attended elementary school. They haven’t had to implement developmentally inappropriate standards or endlessly test prep rather than teach. They have not had to deal with one failed policy after another, none of which were developed by classroom educators. Instead the DOE and corporate interests that seek to profit from our children developed these policies, blessed by our union leaders. The problem is none of the teachers I know were ever asked their thoughts on what positions our union should have. Why are so many of the people unaffected by these policies so vocal to defend them? It’s time for new leadership and new union strategies.
I am reminded of a conversation I had with Beth Dimino a few months back. She is the President of Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association, the AFT/NYSUT local in Long Island, New York. She told me anything she negotiates for her members has a direct impact on her and the students she teaches every day. That’s when it hit me: Common Core Standards, Danielson rubrics, value added measures, high stakes testing, and everything else we have had to face over the last few years is what she faces every day, not only as a union leader, but as a classroom teacher. That is why she speaks so passionately for her students and members; that’s why she fights so hard and my union leadership does not. She is a classroom teacher — they are not!
Randi Weingarten and Michael Mulgrew have not been classroom teachers for a very long time. When they speak about standards or evaluations they do not do so from first-hand experience. They don’t know what it is like to have to follow failed policies, which you know harm your pedagogy. They haven’t been offended by having their craft reduced to a checklist rubric. It is difficult to speak out against poverty, unless you have seen the reality of inequality in the eyes of your students on a daily basis. Anything that hurts our students hurts us.
At the AFT convention there was a panel on “Social Movement and Social Justice Unionism,” The new leader of Los Angeles teachers’ union (UTLA) Alex Caputo-Pearl explained social justice unionism: “ It’s explicit in fighting for racial and social justice. It’s explicit in fighting against privatization. It’s explicit in taking people on who need to be taken on, including a lot of Democrats. It’s a unionism that is willing to strike. It’s a unionism that is willing to build to a strike and strike if that’s what we need to do.” It was sad that Michael Mulgrew was also a panelist while he stands against everything that defines it. He never uttered the word strike and never did anything at all to mobilize for a real contract fight during the recent negotiations. While privatizers exploit our public schools by instituting data driven curriculum, high stakes testing, and close our schools so they can open up their charters, our union stands idly by. On this same panel Karen Lewis, President of CTU, described it as “member driven, member driven, member driven” (yes, she said it three times). In fact, while Mulgrew loudly defended Common Core, he never engaged the membership in an open debate to support or oppose it, that is not member driven unionism.
If the AFT really wanted a UFT member to speak out about social justice unionism, they would have invited union members and classroom teachers from the MORE caucus. We have teachers who have boycotted administering high stakes tests and tests only made to evaluate us. We have members who teach in specialized schools and fight for more inclusive entrance policies. Many of our teachers expose the lack of racial diversity within our workforce and work to change that. We work with parent groups such as Change the Stakes to protect our children from privatization. Teachers from MORE support undocumented students by raising money for college scholarships. We have open meetings where all are welcome and healthy debate is encouraged. We work to mobilize UFT members to become engaged in our union. This is our vision, and it is far from that of Michael Mulgrew, Randi Weingarten, and the Unity caucus. The proof is in the pudding — our union does not hold actions in support of our communities. Less than 75% of active members voted in the recent UFT election, which is not exactly evidence that the UFT is “member driven”. The UFT holds union meetings, or “Delegate Assemblies,” only for Chapter Leaders and Delegates, at which the agenda is pre-planned, Mulgrew speaks for an hour, members speak for a few minutes, most of those who vote on resolutions are bound by their Unity caucus to follow the party line, and none of it has an impact on the daily lives of working educators. This is not social justice unionism. This is why there is a disconnect between rank and file and our leadership.
We urge you to read Julie Cavanagh’s article on her view of social justice unionism, which speaks for many of us. She believes, as do I, that it has three components: “First, maintain the best of traditional unionism or professional unionism. Second, recognize that students, parents, community and other union members are our natural allies and we must stand in solidarity together and fight for systemic change across the lines of social, racial and economic justice. Third, build rank-and-file led, democratic unions that are member-driven.” This was not the case at the AFT 2014 Conference. The Common Core debate lasted all of 45 minutes, while people who have never been in a classroom or do not even have children in public schools, were given an hour to speak. The type of unionism we believe in would help the teachers I know become more involved in our UFT. If someone would have consulted them on what was negotiated in the new contract, our positions on Common Core, evaluations, testing or anything else, my friends might actually care that there was a union convention this past weekend. This is how we can make our union stronger.
It’s time for a new union strategies and new leadership. The current leaders of AFT and UFT are too far removed from the classroom and their disconnect is shown by the positions they take. MORE will win, we will change our union, we will mobilize the membership, and we will become leaders like Dimino, Caputo-Pearl, and Lewis, who fight for our students and our members!