UFT Chapter Leader
PS 58 – Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
What is a union for? Why do we belong to one? In these times of looming national “Right to Work” laws that are likely to impede or cripple the ability of labor unions to sustain themselves financially, it seems like a relevant question to ask ourselves. Is a union for Meet the President dinners? Patronage jobs in exchange for political loyalty? Social media campaigns? What are we getting in exchange for the hard-earned dues we pay to the UFT?
Protecting members from abuse by management is a core function, if not THE core function, of a labor union. If a chapter leader or delegate speaking out and organizing against an abusive administrator is subject to retaliation with impunity, what chance is there for a rank-and-file member to actually exercise their contractual rights? The abuse of staff, students, and parents that has been going on, unchecked, at Central Park East 1, an elementary school in East Harlem, is indicative of a union local decayed to the point of paralysis, and so out of touch with its membership and their concerns that it is approaching complete irrelevance.
During the 4/19/17 UFT Delegate Assembly, a second attempt to introduce a resolution on behalf of the staff, parents, and students of the CPE1 was quashed by the UNITY caucus leadership of the UFT, who instructed their loyalty oath bound delegates to vote against even putting the pleas that the school’s elected delegate (himself the victim of multiple and scurrilous investigations in retaliation for his activism) were making on behalf of the embattled stakeholders on the agenda for the next meeting. Having briefly consulted with UFT President Michael Mulgrew, Bronx District Rep Howie Schorr listed a number of steps that the UFT had taken to address the issue, and said it was up to the Department of Education to fix the problem.
Nobody had suggested that the UFT had not taken any action, only that the situation had been neither resolved nor mitigated up to this point, and that additional, more forceful action was necessary. UFT members, whose dues pay the very comfortable salaries our leadership enjoys, rightfully look towards our union when we are under attack. Telling members to rely upon management (in this case, Chancellor Fariña and the NYCDOE) to solve problems with their supervisors undermines one of the fundamental reasons we need unions to exist: namely, that doing so is akin to asking a fox to guard a henhouse from the other foxes. That a UFT employee thinks that’s an acceptable message to send to a collection of the union’s elected representatives and many of its most committed activists is a measure of how far down the rabbit hole we’ve travelled.
President Mulgrew speaks frequently and with deep concern (rightly so) about the Janus case that will likely allow people to opt out of paying dues while still receiving the services of the the union (something we’re not even going to bother trying to stop). The “Union Loud and Proud” campaign was an acknowledgement, insufficient as it was, that if we want the UFT to survive, which will require members to volunteer their hard earned dollars, our members will need to feel they are getting something in exchange for their money. The UFT calendar booklets, beloved as they are, will not justify $1000+ per year in dues for most people.
If we can’t protect our own members, why would anyone pay dues to an organization that clearly won’t stand up for them, even under the most egregious circumstances, if they don’t have to? The unions that are successfully bracing for a post-Janus environment are the ones that are reminding their members why people organized unions to begin with and what we have to gain from supporting them, even if the financial contributions become voluntary. Ceding to our bosses the responsibility of defending members in the most grievous and clear-cut of cases like CPE1, when the staff and parents are united against an almost cartoonishly villainous principal and garnering positive press coverage, is tantamount to suicide for the UFT.
The only answer for those of us not interested in joining UNITY’s heedless rush into obsolescence is rank-and-file organizing, something our leadership should be supporting rather than suppressing. If our leadership is not interested in doing the work of defending us, we will need to do it ourselves. However, Mulgrew and Co. shouldn’t be surprised if many members, given the option to and absent any compelling reason to do otherwise, choose to keep their dues money for themselves. What is a union for? UNITY and their compromised analogues across the country are leaving their members wondering.