Who Controls the UFT?

By Michael Fiorillo, Teacher, Newcomers HS
MORE Steering Committee 
To most teachers, often overwhelmed by ever-increasing demands that have little or nothing to do with providing the best education for their students, the UFT seems remote from their daily experience. Beyond welfare fund services, when they think about the Union at all, it is often in terms of hefty dues deductions. Rarely so they think the union fighting for them, and with good reason: it rarely does other than little pantomimes of fighting back.Teachers less and less see the Union as a vehicle for improving their lives at an ever more demanding job where they are increasingly less secure and respected. Higher salaried senior teachers often feel they have a target on their backs. New teachers see achieving tenure as an ever-receding mirage – as an obstacle course as they engage in a 3, 4, or more year endurance contest with their principal and/or local Superintendent. And if they get past that will they survive long enough to get a pension? The silence and impotence of the Union is apparent. How often do we hear exasperated, demoralized teachers asking, “Where is the Union?”The Union often feels like a distant and largely irrelevant force because of the inbred, anti-Democratic practices of an ever-more indifferent leadership, which often seems complicit with the dysfunction and outrages we daily face in the schools. The UFT’s ruling faction, Unity Caucus, has been in power for over half a century, and suffers from most of the ills of too much power held over too long a time: out-of-touch, unwilling to consider new ideas, and often identifying more with management and so-called “education reformers” than with their own members.What is Unity Caucus?
Caucuses are the political parties that seek to govern the union. Unity caucus has had sole, unlimited policy-making control since the UFT was founded in the early 60’s. The UFT has had opposition caucuses vying for political power over the years, but Unity has structured the UFT in a way to assure them complete control and the creation of an entrenched political machine that has passively accepted, and sometimes actively collaborated with, policies inimical to teachers and students.

The lack of union democracy has very tangible consequences for teachers. Lately, virtually all of those consequences have been negative, and have correlated with declining participation from the rank and file. Less than 20% of active teachers voted in the last election and 52% of those who did vote were retirees. Unity has so rigged the election process, every single member of the 101 member UFT Executive Board is Unity endorsed.

Members must commit to a loyalty oath to ALWAYS support whatever dictates come down from the leadership and NEVER speak against them publicly. Hundred of chapter leaders are Unity Caucus members and if it comes down to supporting the interests of the teachers who elected them or the union leadership most Unity chapter leaders will force feed policies from the top to their members, thus putting the needs of the caucus over their colleagues.

Teachers who attempt to go above a Unity chapter leader to the borough or district reps are stonewalled since these reps have been appointed by the leadership since the UFT ended elections of District Reps in 2002, thus bringing Unity’s centralized, top-down governance to both the school, district and borough levels.

Other than a few exceptions, getting even part-time work at the Union is conditional on Unity Caucus membership, a powerful incentive for closely-policed conformity.

There are many reasons for the scapegoating, disrespect and attacks that public school teachers have been suffering for a generation. One of the reasons they’ve been so successful is that the Union leadership’s continuing anti-democratic practice has made it rigid and sclerotic, dangerously dependent on “friends in high places” – especially since their most important friend, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, was recently indicted – and unwilling to tap into the knowledge and energy of its rank and file. Unity Caucus is so wedded to decades of power, so scared of the membership and intent on managing it instead of representing it, that they risk the destruction of the Union itself along with the mission of public education as we know it.

It follows that the survival of public education and teacher unions themselves are bound up with issues of union democracy. The continued entrenchment of the Unity Caucus Machine virtually guarantees the continuing success of attacks on teachers, their benefits, working conditions and dignity. If we are serious about saving public education and the teaching profession, then we must be serious about taking back our Union from the out-of-touch Unity Caucus Machine that controls it.

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5 thoughts on “Who Controls the UFT?

  1. “Rarely so they think the union fighting for them, and with good reason: it rarely does other than little pantomimes of fighting back.Teachers less and less see the Union as a vehicle for improving their lives at an ever more demanding job where they are increasingly less secure and respected.”
    Typically the people who feel this way also view the union as a separate entity that they only want to be involved with when they themselves are in hot water. The true problem that we are dealing with is not leadership it is membership. 95 to 98 percent of my school does does not participate in their union. They forget that the union is as strong as its membership. A chapter leader/union rep can work as hard and as smart as the best but see very poor results. In many schools this is due to the fact that most members don’t want to be in the fight unless it is about there own personal situation. Most are hoping to “Fly under the radar” which means not standing up for injustice unless that injustice affects them directly. I agree many members want to see improvements in their workplace. The only problem is they want want someone else to fight for it so they can stay “under the radar”. We have more of a membership problem when it comes to resolving problems in our schools than a leadership problem. Each and everyone of us needs to start treating each other as brothers and sisters and stand up and with each other. Our strength in a school building is gained by large numbers of staff who are willing to realize that they are the union And decide to stand up and speak out against our administration’s. Large numbers of staff standing up and speaking out will win our fight. I’ll say it again we have membership problem not a leadership problem. I will paraphrase what I heard Karen Lewis say one time: when a teacher is rated ineffective or being railroaded we should all be running to support them and not running away worried about catching their “disease”. Our strength is in our numbers not our leaders. We have a membership problem not a leadership problem.

    1. Unfortunately, there is much truth in what you say, but I’d qualify it by saying that Unity benefits from that indifference and cultivates it.

  2. I have never seen Unity’s “loyalty oath.” Have you? Can you provide a text or a first hand report from someone who took it?

    If you are going to pin Unity’s domination and membership apathy on an undemocratic structure then how about specific demands for structural change? I don’t think you offer much support for your contention. Aside from the so called “loyalty oath” and the appointment of district reps (enacted within the past 15 or twenty years I think), not a single “structure” is identified in your article to support your contention that the UFT is undemocratic.

    Factions among the people contend and factional loyalty can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the justness of the cause and issues involved. You seem to suggest that an “oath of loyalty” to ones chapter is ‘democratic’ but an oath to an elected union leadership is not. I don’t think that this formula is useful in broadening awareness, solidarity or an activist base within the UFT.

    What if you were the chapter leader in a school full of new teachers who opposed the UFT’s defense of seniority or a school full of pro PBA members who opposed Mulgrew’s endorsement of the Garner rally? Would it be “undemocratic” to argue the union leadership’s position here? What about the Chapter at JHS 271 in Ocean Hill Brownsville that supported community control and never allowed its school to be closed in 1968? ( see – Inside Ocean-Hill Brownsville – A Teacher’s Education 1968-69 by Charles S. Isaacs) Isn’t it democratic for parents to have some measure of control over their children’s education and for teachers to partner with the community even if that puts them at odds with their Union leadership?

    If the Unity Caucus was in the business of requiring its Delegates and Chapter Leaders to go against the wishes of their chapter members, the Unity Caucus and the UFT as a whole would be in much worse shape than we are today and the opposition caucuses would be winning much more than 20% in elections. It is rare that I hear bad reports from MORE chapter leaders about their District Reps. To the contrary, mostly I hear that the DRs are responsive.

  3. If you doubt the existence of the loyalty oath, a five second Google search under “Unity Caucus Application” would have answered your first questions: but here’s the link anyway: http://www.unitycaucus.org/assets/documents/UNITY%20CAUCUS20%APPLICATION%20200%20MAR.pdf

    Demands for structural change? How about no longer allowing retirees to vote in officer elections, as a start?

    As for you other questions, while they might have distant philosophical or historical interest, they are largely irrelevant to the current realities faced by teachers in the NYC public schools.

    Regarding the “responsiveness” of the District Reps, sure they’ll help you with a Welfare Fund matter, but try to engage them over questions of union policy and you’ll get the Party Line and nothing more.

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