In 2014, UFT leadership watched the Friedrichs case come at them (and all of us) like dinosaurs watching the extinction-causing comet hurtling towards earth. They stared slack-jawed, and did nothing outside of introducing a hashtag or two and a tepid social media campaign. That extinction-level event was dodged (through no effort of their own), and, like clockwork, a new comet appeared called Janus vs. AFSCME.
Janus is a court case designed to deal a grievous blow to the labor movement in the U.S. By mandating that workers in union-represented workplaces be allowed to “free ride”, or receive the benefits of union representation without paying dues, the right wing forces using the plaintiff, Mark Janus, as a marionette, mean to deny unions the money they need to function. If the outcome of the case is as expected, it will make the public sector in the whole country “right-to-work”, an arrangement that is deeply dangerous for American workers, but perhaps more so for the already decaying business unionism model of which the UFT is a prime example, since unions operating in this way rely heavily on paid staff and financial contributions to Democratic elected officials, tools that may become more scarce if, as expected, a large number of current members choose to withhold their dues post-Janus.This is doubly dangerous for the UFT and similar unions which have a large number of disaffected rank-and-file members with no perceived stake in or support for their unions; the UFT is thought by many of its members to be ineffective regarding even core responsibilities like protecting members from abusive supervisors and filing grievances against violations of our contract. All of this is a formula for massive post-Janus defections.
The response of Unity Caucus (the invite-only clique that has run the UFT since its founding and includes Michael Mulgrew, Randi Weingarten, and anyone else who has ever held any power within the union) can best be described as sclerotic, and too little too late. Chapter Leaders have been hearing a lot about Janus during the 2017-2018 school year, and the door-knocking campaign, in which UFT activists are trained to go door-to-door having face to face conversations with members in their homes about the importance of sticking with the union, seems like a step in the right direction. I’m concerned in this case, though, that the horse is already out of the barn. The UFT has done little to no real organizing among its core NYC educator constituency in decades, and it may be too late to mobilize a profoundly disconnected membership to save the union; a disconcerting number don’t seem to care whether it lives or dies.
It is that sense of alienation that brings us to the Membership Teams. Each UFT chapter is supposed to have a group of activists whose responsibility it is to speak one on one with all the UFT members in the building, make sure the the union has up to date data, and ultimately ask each member whether they plan to continue supporting the union once it becomes legal to receive most or all of the benefits of union membership for free. There is an app, MiniVAN, which is to be used to guide the conversation, but more so to provide data to the union about their membership. The app provides a script for the team member, with pauses to input the answers to various questions into the database, and a dramatic handing of the smartphone over to the member at the end, who presses a button pledging to stick with the union.
This kind of member-to-member organizing is exactly the sort of thing that the UFT should have been doing all along, so I’m encouraged to see my union creaking into action. But even now, when UFT leadership is more or less trying to do the right thing, the lumbering, inflexible, bureaucratic way it is being executed highlights the degree to which they have become indistinguishable from the corporate/bureaucratic hierarchies they are meant to be protecting us from. Rather than using an online dashboard to add and edit people’s responses and info as you add them, as is standard in this, the year 2018, to use the app, you need to manually enter which member of the team is meant to speak to each UFT member in your building into a spreadsheet that the captain passes along to the District Rep, who then passes it along to Central for data entry. That UFT member is then linked with that particular team member, and only those people will show up in each team member’s app. Somebody drop off your team for whatever reason? Too bad. Did someone on the team get into a passionate conversation about the union with someone with whom their team leader has not linked them in the app? Too bad, there’s no way to adjust those lists, at least as far as the UFT Special Rep that ran the training for the membership teams in my district was aware. That’s somehow even LESS user friendly and flexible than the online portal for the ADVANCE teacher evaluation system that UNITY caucus collaborated in the development of and loves very, very much… if a kid on your roster leaves or changes classes or schools, at least you can make an alteration to reflect that reality.
If the DOE was asking me to do inane, redundant data gathering/paperwork like this, I’d be speaking my UFT District Representative and pondering a paperwork complaint. I understand why the union wants this data, but the only part of this that means anything is the part at the end when people tap something to agree to stick with the union, and that can be accomplished quite ably with a signature on a piece of paper after a real face to face conversation, so why all the extra steps?
Now that we are finally organizing, they want us to be staring at, or at least repeatedly going back and forth to our smartphones to do data entry as we talk to people about why supporting the union is so important. These are some of the most important organizing conversations we will ever have. I understand the desire for the UFT to have relevant data about their membership, their feelings about the union, what they think about Janus, updated contact info, and, most importantly, whether people plan on maintaining their UFT memberships or begin freeriding. But this is way too much to cram into a single 1:1 conversation; you can’t make up for 20 or 30 years of being a remote top-down business model union in one conversation. Not to mention that we reconfirm member contact info every September, and that the union sent out a fairly extensive survey to all members only a few months ago.
This is a grotesque approximation of the 1:1 organizing conversations most of the true UFT activist have all the time, but filtered through the most hide-bound, bureaucratic lens possible. They are finally trying to do the right thing, sort of, but it has been so long since anyone in a real position of authority at the UFT has done any organizing that they have no idea what it looks like anymore. The membership team at PS 58 was formed in the fall, but lay dormant until May waiting for UFT leadership to creak into action to train and equip us and transmit unified marching orders. I now regret the lost time we spent waiting on our putative leaders to do their jobs. I now realize I had not fully assimilated the lessons of West Virginia or of Arizona: the seas of rank-and-file educators in the streets and in the capitol buildings has been the power terrifying the enemies of public education and winning real victories for public education, NOT the AFT/NEA officers desperately trying to keep up, in some cases collaborating with districts to send educators back to work with their goals unmet. Despite years of seeing the dysfunction of our union leadership, part of me still held out hope that, on the brink of their own annihilation, they would prove worthy of the name; if not for their members, then at least for themselves. But no more. I’m not waiting for support or, God forbid, initiative, from the top. We ARE the union; if the current educator revolt across the country has taught us anything, it’s that the rank and file don’t need their ineffectual leadership to get results. Our membership committee, our UFT chapter, and our colleagues across the city are sick of waiting for leadership to catch up. The time to act is now. If, instead of waiting for our ostensible leadership, we take our cues from our rank-and-file colleagues rising up across the country, we may even succeed in saving the UFT in spite of itself.
Teacher/UFT Chapter Leader
PS 58, The Carroll School