by Megan Behrent – Delegate, FDR High School, Brooklyn
As ballots wait to be counted at the American Arbitration Association, much of the media as well as the union leadership anticipate the vast majority of UFT members will vote “yes” to ratify the contract proposal. If that is the case, Mulgrew and the Unity caucus will be quick to declare victory for their “historic” contract.
But regardless of the final count, we need to look beneath the surface of the vote to understand what it reveals about the state of our union. Over the past few weeks, MORE has been part of a groundswell “Vote No” campaign, but rank and file anger was much broader and deeper than those active in any caucus.
Educators understood that to delay pay parity with other city workers was an insult to teachers and that raises which fail to keep up with cost of living increases was an attack on all city unions. Teachers opposed this contract because they know that the teacher evaluation system is disastrous for education, and that a separate, “expedited” process for terminating ATRs is an attack on our job security and on the basic idea of union solidarity.
In the vast majority of schools where we were able to speak to teachers, these were not arguments that were hard to make. Where teachers were given the full information about this contract (as fuzzy as much of that information still is), they understood that this was a bad deal—bad for teachers, bad for our schools, and bad for the communities we serve.
All over the city, UFT members came to meetings and happy hours organized by MORE members to find out more information. Far from an apathetic membership, we found union members hungry for information, discussion and mobilization. The same has been true on social media where members—long denied a voice in the official union venues where democracy is a farce and dissent is crushed— have turned to express their anger and opposition. Whatever the outcome of the contract vote, teachers becoming more vocal is in and of itself is a victory—for, an informed, active membership is the key to any future organizing.
At the same time, we have seen a massive misinformation campaign to scare people into a “yes” vote. In schools where real debate and discussion was encouraged, such fear mongering was challenged if not dispelled. Nonetheless, we are painfully aware that in the majority of schools in this city, there is no independent voice and often little union presence at all. With no confidence in our union leadership’s ability to lead a real fight, it is no wonder that many of our members might believe that contract represents the best we could do.
In this context, any significant opposition vote is important. If a sizable minority of our membership were to vote no on this contract, it would send a powerful message to our union leadership, to Tweed and City Hall, that our members see through the lies and are not prepared to roll over and acquiesce. It would show there is potential to engage more people in ongoing organizing to reclaim our union and our schools.
Ultimately, the key question is how do we build a movement that can draw lessons from our ‘Vote No’ campaign, and encourage a new group of activated members to join MORE in the struggle for union democracy and reform.
Demoralization is one possible response to the ratification of this lousy contract; but organization is far more powerful.
Whatever the final results on the contract turn out to be, the key question remains. How do we save our union and revive a tradition of rank and file activism that puts the struggle for our schools at its center?
We know that if this contract is ratified, in 2018 we will be faced with more of the same, as we will once again be told that there is no money– especially since the majority of retro payments occur in 2019/2020 AFTER the proposed contract expires. The more important question is where will MORE be? Who will be running our union? Our schools? What kind of rank and file base will have? Will we have greater reach and more capacity to fight for the contract we deserve?
We are at an important historical juncture in the battle for our schools: there is a growing national movement for union reform, against standardized testing and against the education deformers. It is this movement that has inspired a growing opt out movement among parents opposed to testing, inspired teachers to boycott administering soul sucking standardized tests, and inspired a growing number of educators to demand more from our union and more from our schools. It is the same movement that has given confidence to people to vote no on this contract. This is a potentially powerful movement that can transform our unions and our schools.
On June 3rd, the results of the contract vote will be announced. But the fight does not stop there. Whatever the ultimate result, MORE’s monthly membership meeting on June 7th will be an important place for us to assess the results and discuss next steps in the fight to take back our schools and our union.