I think it was when Bill Thompson walked through the doors of the UFT Delegate Assembly, seconds after we rubber-stamped the Executive Board’s recommendation that the union endorse him for mayor. They had stopped even pretending we had a voice.
At that moment, I knew I couldn’t wait and watch anymore, getting the lay of the land. I needed to act.
It wasn’t out of the blue. This was the final meeting of my first year as a UFT delegate, and I had seen some deeply troubling things. Unaccountable single party rule; dissent suppressed and mocked; a small, privileged clique monopolizing the power flowing from the paychecks, voices, and votes of over a hundred thousand dues-paying members, doling out perks like a medieval lord to his vassals in exchange for their loyalty.
The UFT members I represent, like most of the education professionals I have been lucky enough to work with in various schools over the years, feel largely alienated and apathetic about their union because the leadership has made no effort to engage them. My school is a hotbed of creativity and energy—exciting educational things are happening all the time. The staff will show up for union meetings, but what do the chapter leader and I have to present to them? What has our leadership done that will capture their passion and imagination, mobilize the limitless potential of the rank and file members of the UFT? The truth is that the leadership doesn’t want them roused; informed activists are unpredictable. Passive dues-payers are safer within the “business union” model favored by the leadership of the UFT.
Even those of us who have been elected to represent our schools have a negligible amount of power within the union. The Unity caucus, currently in control of the union, began as a an explosion of energy and militant action, but more than fifty years of uninterrupted and unchecked power inevitably leads to paralysis. The ossified power structure of the union has become satisfied, conservative, and unaccountable. Measures in the Delegate Assembly pass with unanimous votes, the token opposition allowed is mocked from the dais and the floor, and the UFT Elections show positively authoritarian margins of victory combined with turnout numbers you might expect from an off-year, unopposed local election.
Once I saw them in action, once I did my research and traced how things had come to be as they are in the UFT, how Unity had stifled or successfully co-opted all opposition and developed a model dominated by full-time staff and the Executive Board that shut out the voices of the working educators who ARE the UFT, I knew there would be no way I could feel comfortable toeing their line.
But what alternative is there in a union in which power is so closely guarded? I saw the way MORE members were marginalized and snickered at, how the decision-making apparatus of the union is, at all levels, constructed to maintain and monopolize power. Between the mayoral endorsement and imposition of the new evaluation system, June represented a profound crisis of confidence for me. I felt our union was failing us, garnishing our paychecks with no accountability, presiding over defeat after defeat and shutting out the voices and energy of the rank and file, the only reason the UFT exists at all (something the UFT Executive Board should probably keep in mind).
I was close to despair. It was tempting to give up, go limp, quit the delegate position, stop reading the news, shut the classroom door and teach my kids as best the Department of Education will allow (I teach a high-stakes testing grade, so that’s relative).
During this time of doubt, I heard an interview on WNYC with a nun named Sister Sally Butler who has worked in a housing project in Fort Greene for 45 years. She is a fearless whistleblower, and has faced enormous hostility and push-back from those in the Church hierarchy who have been embarrassed or inconvenienced by the horrific sexual abuse and cover-ups by priests and their superiors she has dragged into the light of day. The interviewer asked her:
“Have you ever thought of leaving the Church?”
and Sister Sally answered:
“The Church, no. The Church is mine. THEY should leave.”
The humble yet immovable strength in this answer stopped me cold: replace the word “Church” with “union”, and it became startlingly apt to my situation. I do not, in any way, seek to to compare sexual abuse by clergy to anything happening within the UFT. Nor do I want to minimize the suffering of the victims of that abuse. What made the Sister Sally interview so inspiring to me was that she has refused to give up on her mission despite impossible odds, continuing her service from within the organization, even while being undermined by the entrenched, conservative, status quo obsessed hierarchy that is meant to be supporting her. We have our union dues deducted automatically from our paychecks, there is no opting out. Even if there were, it is clear to me that the answer is NOT to run away, to shrink from our responsibilities. More than ever, we need a union to protect the interests of the teachers, the students, and the communities that are being set upon by “reformers” at all levels who want to suck public education dry and sell off the skeleton to the higher bidder.
The solution is NOT to throw up our hands and declare that Unity is just too powerful, too established, too connected to allow the UFT to become a true, democratic vehicle for the voices and aspirations of the education professionals and stakeholders of the New York City public schools.
The solution is to stand up, refuse to surrender to despair, and do the hard work it takes to mobilize the capable, passionate, brilliant educators and stakeholders in this city and beyond… and I have come to believe that MORE is the vehicle for that effort.
We have the example of Sister Sally Butler to inspire us, and recent successes in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Newark to show us that it CAN be done, that seemingly invincible foes CAN be brought to heel through nothing more than people power and the will to make things better.
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