By Jia Lee
UFT Chapter Leader of The Earth School
Every two years, the American Federation of Teachers, convenes to address proposals for resolutions and positions we take as a national union. Seven non-Unity members from New York City, headed to Minneapolis, for the AFT convention on its 100th Anniversary. Arthur Goldstein of MORE and Jonathan Halabi of New Action, two of the seven newly elected high school executive board members, joined Norm Scott to report the events from the press section. You can find the links to their blogs below. Gloria Brandman, Lisa North and Gladys Sotomayor, all veterans of NYC public schools and members of MORE were present at general sessions, leafletting and networking with members from other locals. For me, being present in this space to support the reporting out of what goes on is just as important as being in solidarity with locals who need to know that there are other voices coming out of NYC besides that of the Unity stronghold.
To put things into perspective, while it is important to know how issues are brought to the convention and subsequently, how decisions are made, it is even more important to understand how immensely it connects to rank and file members back at home. We are the untapped power. For those of us who know little to nothing about how it works, here’s a little overview:
Out of 2,608 delegates in the AFT, representing locals from New York to California, the UFT sends 750 delegates to this level of our union. Yes, this is very NYC heavy. With the small number of delegates from the rest of New York State, many of whom are unable to afford the trip, our representation is often viewed as insurmountable. Delegates from different locals meet in nine different committees where most resolutions are debated and voted on. In between, there are general sessions where all delegates come together to debate and vote on the top three resolutions as a body, special acknowledgements and elections for AFT officers and panel presentations. The seven of us carried visitor passes since we are not elected delegates but we are AFT members via our local.
As one can imagine, there are many orders of business and activities that we could share, but here are three stark take-aways about the purposeful lack of democracy from this convention everyone should know, as dues paying members.
- Our UFT Constitution needs to be amended. We handed out a MORE -AFT 2016 Edition flier explaining to fellow AFT members that while our high school exec board candidates won seats, they do not carry AFT delegate status. It is written in our constitution that winner takes all. This, in fact, ignores the fact that we won nearly 30% of the votes. When we tell this to other unions, many are surprised. Delegates from other locals reported that these positions are voted on separately. Why was this written into our constitution one may ask? It clearly ensures a block vote. The implications call for a change to representational percentages amongst delegates.
- The UFT/Unity does in fact control NYSUT, and this needs to change. It seems that to dominate the national scene, it is imperative for the largest local to also control the state. We learned that Ed Representatives which represent districts across the state, are nearly all Unity. It was written into the constitution at the state level that ed representatives do not have to necessarily live in the region it purportedly represents; therefore, Unity can and has put up their own candidates when they feel like. Because of the loyalty oath and disproportionate number of delegates we represent, whoever Unity puts in, is guaranteed a win. This contributes to the unfair advantage at the state and national levels. Locals across the state find this frustratingly unfair and undemocratic.
It plays out in divisive ways by creating an imbalance in representation electorally and subsequently has consequences at the state and at the national level. At this year’s AFT convention, at the convening of the Educational Issues Committee, something disturbing occurred. Almost everyone knows that NYSUT (our state union) passed Stronger Together’s (ST caucus) proposed resolution on opt out called I-Refuse at last year’s state-wide convention. A version of this was prepared by a committee within NYSUT for the AFT convention. It was printed in the resolutions packet on the first day of the AFT.
Just moments before raising the resolution, Karen Magee, our NYSUT president pulled out a substitute resolution that was entirely different from the original. Even the title was changed from “Support the I-Refuse Movement to Oppose High Stakes Testing” to “End the Misuse of Testing and Support Teacher and Parent Rights.” In effect, all of the strong and actionable resolves of the former resolution were removed and in its place was a much diluted version that upheld standardized tests as useful when not misused and supported the rights of parents to opt their children out of the tests and for teachers to explain these rights without fear of penalty. It did not support teachers as agents of change as the I-Refuse resolution did. Jilted, fellow NYSUT members of the ST caucus objected to the substitution which was overruled. The Unity stronghold had prepared for this, keeping the ST members in the dark. The substitute resolution passed.
- AFT Leadership controls the membership. This must change. We are a top down driven union. The international relations and domestic positions of the Democratic Party, and specifically Hillary Clinton (who was present and gave a very disappointing speech about supporting public charter schools) shaped the convention. It was tightly controlled.
For instance, during the debate over the resolution to support the teachers of Oaxaca who have risen in massive numbers to strike against the privatization of their public schools, a teacher from California rose to distinguish, for members, the difference between supporting the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE) and the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE). The national union El SNTE has been in collusion with the government in its attack on teachers in Oaxaca, resulting in the violence that has led to the killings of teachers. She went on to state that the blood of those teachers would be on the AFT if it supported the SNTE.
Mary Cathryn Ricker, AFT Vice President, rose to speak against this. She said that it was not true, “The SNTE is not responsible…” This red herring argument derailed what the teacher was stating. Though the SNTE may not be responsible, they have been in collusion. For those who are not as informed, this was enough to downplay this very real problem.
In the “Fighting for Safe Communities and Racial Justice for Our Citizens and our First Responders” I was very intrigued to find that the resolution included lines that members found problematic. For instance, “Whereas, the AFT supports all police officers who perform the duty of serving us daily in the name of public safety;” and “Resolved, that the AFT will collaborate with unions representing police and public safety officers in the law enforcement community to advocate for fair policing through greater transparency and accountability, which will lead to safer communities;” was heavily debated on the floor. In a following analysis, I will share some ideas on how this debate detracts from the discussion needed to understand the fundamental changes needed to shift a culture of implicit racial bias and machismo (or patriarchy) that create conditions for disproportionate targeting and brutality of Black community members. One member pointed out that just as there is a police union, union members are victims of brutality. There is so much more to this issue than what lies on the surface, but it will not be discussed at an AFT convention.
However, at the AFT, the chair took liberties that clearly did not follow Robert’s Rules of Order, and at times, it seemed fair and at other times, it was clearly strategically unfair. In the end, the resolutions passed as intended, without the fortitude to muster true alliances and actions to enact real change to our daily lives as teachers. I should add that watching Randi Weingarten, the AFT president, chair all general sessions, was exhausting. She must control the pulpit, and this is, not so oddly, familiar. The Clinton endorsement shaped the landscape and, as usual, the leadership subdued the membership. The work of maintaining control at the NYC level contributes to maintaining the whims of a very ambitious and relentless AFT president.
In reflective conversations with folks from other unions at the UCORE event, it was said on multiple occasions that at the end of the day, resolutions are a piece of paper. Instead, we discussed the need for a different vision of unionism as we build our base, member by member, school by school. This requires that we continue to do the kind of self education and teach ins on the issues that slipped so easily through at the AFT. Envisioning a different way to enact democracy within our union is a must, or we are in danger of replicating the undemocratic ways of our present and past. What this means involves a real analysis of how race relations have played out through the positions of union leaders, as well as, developing structures different from the ones we know.
And Arthur’s observations:
- AFT Convention 2016 – Days 3 and 4
- AFT Convention 2016 – Meeting the President
- AFT Convention 2016 – Day 2
- AFT Convention 2016 – Day 1
- AFT Convention 2016 – Prequel Chicago
- AFT Wrap-up