Part two of a series of posts based on our summer series forum that was presented on Thursday 7/25/2013. The purpose was to share the various perspectives on how we, an opposition caucus, views Unity, the dominant party in power of the UFT? As potential partner, foe or something in between? There were four presentations. These views do not necessarily represent those of MORE, rather they are part of the diverse viewpoints that represent our membership.
Started teaching in District 16 (Bed-Stuy) at the start of the 1968 strike – helped keep school open for the duration of the strike.
Chapter chair for 10 years.
Leave of Absence after 18 years to be a stay at home dad for 10 years.
Returned as trainer and computer programmer on the ATS project from 1995-2002.
Founding member of the Brooklyn Bridge (Dist 16), Coalition of NYC School Workers and ICE.
From Shanker to Mulgrew, A Consistent Thread of Givebacks – The late 60’s through Shanker’s support for “A Nation at Risk”
By Ira Goldfine
The focus of our discussion today is how should an organization such as MORE relate to the UFT leadership. One way to approach an answer is to try and understand fully who we are dealing with from a historical perspective. The lessons that we learn will provide us with some clarity and make us better able to be proactive as opposed to reactive. We should never allow ourselves to be put on the defensive when the UNITY leadership tries to define our opposition as somehow undermining the union.
UNITY Caucus has led this union for more than 45 years. From Al Shanker to Sandra Feldman to Randi Weingarten and finally to Michael Mulgrew they have developed a pattern of behavior that has remained mostly constant over that entire time span. Their leadership has:
1) divided us from our natural allies whether it be the communities we work in or other workers both private and municipal that have had to deal with the same issues we do.
2) created a weak union incapable of fighting for better working conditions for its members or getting sufficient funding to improve the quality of our schools.
3) made our contract a mostly meaningless and largely unenforceable document
4) marginalized and vilified the opposition and changed the rules of their so-called “democracy” whenever they felt in the least bit threatened.
Let’s look at each of these in more detail:
Dividing us from our natural allies
The leadership has fought from its early days to have control of the school system centralized and out of the hands of local communities. This fight led to the destructive 1968 strike which created deep divisions between the UFT and the communities where we work. During the period from 1968 until 2001, they invested large amounts of resources to deform the idea of community control wherever they could. Using COPE money they would seek out and elect local politicians who they knew would be compliant. In the end this desire for central control led them to support Bloomberg’s call for mayoral control that has been a disaster for public education in NYC.
Shanker and Feldman and their right-wing Social Democratic allies were strong supporters of the Vietnam War. They were always reliable partners when it came time to call for more money for the Pentagon even though they knew well that this would result in reduced funding for education and other social services. To them the most important thing was fighting communism.
The constant refrain from Shanker and those that followed was that it is not our role to fight for things like smaller class size because it will result in less money for salary raises. It is this same argument that caused Shanker to support the elimination of the More Effective Schools program(MES) in 1972 which was originally supported by the UFT. The idea was to build schools with small classes that would provide medical and other social services not only to the students but to the surrounding community. The UFT decision to go along with the program’s elimination was a real slap in the face to the people who lived in the poorer communities of the city and a lost opportunity to join hands with parents in support of real funding for the schools.
In 1983, Shanker went around the US endorsing the “Nation at Risk” report on the state of education. The report can now be seen as the opening shot for the education deform movement. Its premise that the schools are failing not because of a lack of resources but because of unqualified teachers was the prelude to the position that class size doesn’t matter. It called for merit pay so we can “reward” the good teachers and called for the firing of so-called “bad teachers”.
They have served to divide us from other workers by constantly putting forth the notion that teachers are “professionals” and therefore should be treated differently from other workers. When it came to contract negotiations or candidates to support in elections, the UFT leadership always wandered off on its own looking to be treated as ‘special’ as it has done again recently with the endorsement of Bill Thompson.
Creating a weak union
After the Taylor Law was amended after the 1968 UFT strike to include a penalty of 2 days pay for each day of a strike, people asked how come the UFT leadership wasn’t able to stop its passage despite its constant COPE claim that we are the most powerful group in Albany. Of course the answer was they really never wanted to stop this part of the Taylor Law. The UFT leadership knew that the Triborough Law allowed any expired contract to continue forever without a new agreement so this would remove a great deal of the pressure from the membership. It was the end of the policy we had as a union from its inception of “No contract – no work”.
The 1975 strike in the midst of the so-called municipal financial crisis was opposed by Shanker from the beginning. He knew how angry teachers were so he called the strike to vent some of that anger. Declaring in a massive march over the Brooklyn Bridge, that “we won’t go back until we all go back”, knowing full well he was going to sell the strike down the drain. Although the strike was very effective and universally supported by the members, the UNITY leadership terminated the strike after 5 days and accepted a contract that caused the layoffs of more than 15,000 members along with other draconian measures. After being sold-out the members then had to pay Taylor Law fines for the 5 days of the strike. In the end this put a real damper on any hope for a real fight back by the membership. It has been constantly drummed into our heads over the last 40 years about what happens if you talk about going on strike.
The results have been to allow Unity Caucus to lower expectations and have a weaker but more controllable union which has suited them very well.
Making the contract a meaningless document
Incredibly, the last contract that provided any real improvement in working conditions was the 1972 contract. Since then we have seen not only a lack of gains but in fact we have witnessed a constant erosion of the contractual provisions that afforded us protection. We have seen the contract ignored without penalty which has created a document that is rarely enforced. Despite the loopholes that have always allowed the DOE to keep class sizes high, class size grievances that meet the conditions of the contract languish for months and by the time they are dealt with in many cases it is too late to be meaningful. The time limits for grievances built into the contract are ignored and make many grievances moot by the time they are heard. The attacks continue unabated and have been aimed at some of the most important and hard fought gains such as tenure.
The leadership has worked in collusion with the Department of Education to limit the capability of the rank and file to initiate grievances without relying on the UFT. In 1974 when the Coalition of NYC Schoolworkers filed a Step 3 grievance about staff having a universal right to distribute material in school mailboxes, the UFT leadership refused to support the case but with the help of the NY Civil Liberties Union, were able to win and establish that right for all teachers. It wasn’t long after, that the UFT and DOE agreed to force all step 3 grievances to be approved by the union leadership. Today, the rank and file can only file a grievance in their own schools and after it summarily tossed by the principal is left at the mercy of the UFT as to whether they will pursue it.
Marginalizing and vilifying any opposition
The main weapon that UNITY Caucus has always used against the opposition is to paint it in ways that will create fear in the hearts of the rank and file. Starting with the 1968 strike and going on for 25+ years, the leadership would always talk about the opposition as being strikebreakers even though the strike was clearly aimed at the poorest communities in this city – as late as elections into the mid 80’s this was a common theme. When that theme started to become a bit worn they would tell people that all the opposition wants to do is go out on strike over every issue and remind them about the Taylor Law penalties.
They have created a structure for union elections that almost guarantees them reelection for eternity but when parts of their rule show weakness they are not averse to just change the rules to suit them. When Bruce Markens was elected District Representative of the Manhattan High Schools, by the chapter chairpeople, they just opted to take that right away and have them appointed directly by the UFT leadership. When Mike Shulman was elected high school vice-president a number of years ago, they delayed his taking office for the better part of a year by going to court to deny him his election. Finally after he was elected again they just changed the rules to have divisional vice-presidents elected by all members.
We could go on and on about the cynical use of retirees to maintain control and in fact constantly raising the number of retiree votes that will be counted each year.
How do we then relate to UNITY leadership
It is essential in building our opposition that we focus on our individual workplaces. If we relate to our colleagues in a way that puts ourselves forward as people who provide help, information and support then people will have an easy time understanding why we are so critical of the policies of our leadership. Even after the bitter feelings engendered for crossing picket lines in the 1968 strike many of us went on to be chapter leaders and delegates of our schools at the same time as building support from the parents within the school.
In our own schools we need to constantly point out what the leadership is doing and show why many of our problems go beyond us having a bad mayor. We need to not let the UFT leadership try to escape their responsibility by blaming the current mayor for our situation. We must refute the notion that our problems will magically disappear if we could just elect the right mayor.
It is important that we distance ourselves and fight back against those that call for people to drop out of the union. This will never lead to a solution to our problems and in fact would merely make us much more vulnerable.
In terms of how MORE should relate as an organization in relation to the UFT itself, we need to let our experiences be our guide. Time after time, when trying to work with the leadership, the end result has been disappointment because we go in thinking that there is room for getting our ideas incorporated into policy. This of course never happens. If we look at the Delegate Assembly we see that even when we are able to get some minimal resolution enacted and it always results in a counter resolution watering down the original or even worse just never gets implemented. It is important however for our bloc of delegates and chapter chair people to propose resolutions that force the leadership to take a position and even more important make sure that our staff knows about the positions that the UFT leadership takes at the DA so they begin to see that the leadership is really a big part of the problem. The solution will come only when the rank and file begins to apply pressure from below.
If we look at the examples of when we have joined UFT committees that they have invited us to participate in we always wind up feeling that we shouldn’t have participated in the first place. The bottom line is that UNITY is never interested in what we have to say other than to use our participation to send some message to the membership. When Gene Prisco of ICE & MORE was running for Congress as the Democratic nominee in 1998, the UFT stayed neutral even though right wing Vito Fasella was far from a friend of labor and it created a firestorm of criticism. So the UFT created a committee to look at how endorsements are made and of course invited the opposition to participate. In the end they wasted our time for months and wound up adding things like social justice issues to the criteria which they just ignore when it comes to endorsements,
If we look at how the UFT leadership proposes that we join rallies that they want to hold we very quickly see that they have no interest in negotiating any part of our participation – they just want to say that we were included.
If we understand the nature of the beast we are dealing with then we will know that we always need to approach them with deep skepticism and at the same time always making sure that our participation comes with a price in that price is we want our ideas to be a part of the dialogue. Of course that is not likely to happen until MORE becomes more of a force in the schools.
In the end it is up to us in our individual schools and literature that we get out to people that we delineate a very different vision of how the union should function and at the same time we need to have people understand that the problems we are having now with the Department of Education have their roots long ago and that it is not a function of Bloomberg or Giuliani but is a result of a union leadership that has consistently failed us and at best we will never get more then crumbs from the table.
Ira Goldfine started teaching in District 16 (Bed-Stuy) at the start of the 1968 strike – helped keep school open for the duration of the strike. Chapter chair for 10 years. Leave of Absence after 18 years to be a stay at home dad for 10 years. Returned as trainer and computer programmer on the ATS project from 1995-2002. Founding member of the Brooklyn Bridge (Dist 16), Coalition of NYC School Workers and ICE.