“The hedge-fund billionaires and Governor Cuomo haven’t gotten their way,” declared UFT President Michael Mulgrew in his official response to Cuomo’s budget deal on March 30. Unfortunately he is wrong. Tests will play a greater role in our evaluation, outside evaluators will be brought in, and it will now take a new teacher four years instead of three to reach tenure. It seems to us that they definitely “got their way”!
UFT members mobilized impressively to fight Governor Cuomo over this budget. This was a welcome development after the UFT leadership failed to rally against Bloomberg’s failed policies, charter schools, or for a good contract. Should we be thankful and praise our UFT leaders for leading a series of protests over the past few weeks, or do we shout from the mountain-top that the reason our union has suffered another defeat is that the Unity/UFT leadership has been unwilling and unable to launch the kind of sustained fight that could have prevented this latest setback? It is time to do the latter.
For years opposition caucuses have tried to pressure the union to change course and rally our members to defend our rights. From 2009-2014 we insisted that the UFT had to mobilize for a good contract. The Unity/UFT leadership’s strategy, however, was to wait for Michael Bloomberg to leave office. The result was a contract with wages that failed to keep up with inflation and belated back pay – yet to be delivered – without interest. When MORE raised resolutions calling for the UFT to stand against the use of standardized student tests for teacher evaluation, Mulgrew replied that tying our careers to such tests was a step forward for us. He even went on to tell us how we needed to be held accountable: “the days of walking into a school, getting your keys to the bathroom and being left alone are over” When MORE proposed that the union demand developmentally appropriate standards and curriculum, as an alternative to Common Core, and when we called for an end to high stakes testing, we were labeled as extremists. Not only has the union leadership conceded over and again to our enemies, but it has refused to involve rank and file members in any significant policy decisions. Now is the time to change that.
After years of not fighting back, after years of waiting out Bloomberg, after years of letting charters expand, in March 2015 the union leadership finally turned to UFT members and asked them to mobilize. Many chapters responded with great demonstrations of solidarity, sign making, hands around schools, videos, meetings with local politicians, and support from the community. There are many more voices to be heard, however, and the UFT has yet to mobilize them. Many of our members continue to face principals who harass them on a regular basis. They have had their pedagogy reduced to checkbox rubrics, and have been forced to become test prep machines. Their energy, enthusiasm, and confidence in their union are sapped. Many are fixated on the daily struggle for survival on the job and can’t think about the state or national context. It is hardly surprising that members in such schools were not quick to heed the UFT’s rallying cry. The actions, therefore, proved too weak and came too late. Albany legislators understood that UFT leaders had neither the desire nor the capacity to summon a wave of social protest strong enough to disrupt routine politics and pressure lawmakers to rebuff the Governor.
While grassroots parent groups are leading the opt-out movement, UFT leaders have done nothing to support them. Recent endorsements of the opt-out strategy from New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten are welcome. And we hope Michael Mulgrew will soon get on board. But we need more than endorsements. Our union should commit its vast resources to help build this movement of civil disobedience to starve the testing beast that is meant to destroy us.
This week Governor Cuomo won a substantial victory. As he did after negotiating the 2014 contract, our union President dressed up a defeat as a victory. We need a union leadership that is honest with the membership and can admit that we have suffered a setback. We need a union that can engage its members in strategic discussion to develop the kind of response that can raise the political heat on politicians and stop the attacks on us. Anyone who reads the national news can see the dark clouds on the horizon. Midwestern governors, such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, have pushed legislation designed to wipe out our bargaining rights. Governor Cuomo is slowly following in their footsteps. Next year, he will undoubtedly propose more “reforms.” The only way to fight this is to revitalize our union. It’s time to make our union democratic, allow for all voices to have representation, time to get our members involved in local actions, and support the growing opt-out campaign. We also need our union to stop embracing measures like common core and the accompanying testing madness that is degrading our profession and killing whatever joy is left in our classrooms.
The union-initiated forums we had over the last several weeks and the local action committees that were formed need to continue and grow. A brief injection of mobilization wasn’t enough to stop Cuomo this time, but if we use it as a starting point to infuse life back into our union we stand a better chance of preventing the next round of attacks. Let’s organize and campaign for real reform, such as smaller classes, wrap around services, and diverse assessments designed by teachers and used to diagnose students, not to intimidate teachers.
Last spring UFT leaders showed up to chapters to sell us a contract. They must do the same when administrators are ruining our schools and when chapter leaders are not doing their jobs. We need organizers to help members stand together and defend themselves, and to support those members who want to bring a union back to a demoralized faculty. When members in one school are under attack from an abusive principal the UFT needs to reach out to members in surrounding schools and involve them in the effort to defend their colleagues. Such actions can put meaning back into the ages old union motto, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
Michael Mulgrew can continue to hurl epithets at the Governor. But he and his supporters share in the blame. MORE’s vision of unionism is an organization that can inspire members with confidence, encourage more of them to become active, and organize the kind of broad fightback that can reverse the attacks on teacher unionism and public education. The Unity/UFT model of unionism features militant-sounding leaders who talk tough, but rely on their ability to make backroom deals with local and state legislators. That model just failed again. Lets join together and take back our union, before it is too late.