Why I Joined MORE
On Social Justice Unionism
& Are We Radical Leftists?
By Michael Schirtzer
I am a member of The Movement of Rank & File Educators (MORE) of the UFT, running on our slate for Vice President at Large. Much of my time recently has been spent contemplating the meaning of social justice unionism, since some people have said to me that is not the right direction for our union nor something I should be involved in. Before I state my thoughts on that I should provide some of my background.
I joined MORE because I became very disillusioned with my union a few years ago. There were waves upon waves of budget cuts that severely affected my students, which I could not stand by and watch. I decided to run for UFT representative to our School’s Leadership Team and was elected. I began talking to our student government organization about fighting for restoration of funds, reaching out to parents by attending Parent’s Association meetings and helping them start a petition campaign. Of course I looked to our school union chapter and the UFT. My chapter leader was fully behind any and all actions we took to challenge the budget cuts that shut down popular after-school programs, reduced the numbers of courses our seniors were allowed to take, and weakened the arts in our school. The problem came when I began to notice that we received very little help from our union. Parents and administrators increasingly looked to me and asked where is the UFT on this. My lack of an answer was embarrassing, simply because I had none. My chapter leader and I decided we must fight back, we could not let our students have a reduced school day, with fewer courses, and after-school programs being cut reducing or completely cutting Plays, newspaper, yearbook, dance, plays, all were drastically reduced and some even totally cut. We organized our chapter to leaflet before school with fliers that explained the results of budget cuts and how we can challenge them by signing a petition and calling 311. Our students and parents joined us in our efforts. These actions led us to reach out to other School Leadership Teams, chapter leaders and delegates from nearby schools, parent association presidents, and student governments. We organized together by; leafleting on the same day with all the schools that joined us, held “Black-Out Fridays” where in solidarity teachers and students wore black, held several pickets before school and were joined by well-known politicians to raise awareness on the negative effects of budget cuts. We held several protest rallies including a large one in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn in front of NY Senator Martin Golden’s office to protest the threat of teacher layoffs because of a lack of funding from the state. At every step it was my chapter leader, myself, and parents who helped organize this. Yes we did have support from our UFT borough representative, but I could not understand why this was not going on citywide. If two teachers from a local school can build connections, organize with the local community, and mobilize our staff, students, and parents, why couldn’t the union do it throughout New York? Our movement grew, we received support from other unions including TWU Local 100 (the transit workers union) and TWU local 101 (the National Grid utility workers union). Our constant picketing even inspired our students to lead a walkout under the banner of “All cuts don’t heal”. As this movement against budget cuts snowballed, I kept on wondering why my union leadership did not do more. I soon became a delegate and decided to join MORE in order to transform our union into one that builds relationships with parents, students, community groups, and labor unions. I want a union that does more of what I was able to accomplish without all the resources and money that my leadership has.
What type of unionism is the example I gave you above? Is it old-fashioned trade unionism often referred to as “bread and butter unionism”? It probably wasn’t, because it was a movement that included more than the “workers”. Is it social justice unionism? That depends of your definition of that. I am sure that you can Google “Social Justice Unionism” or come to your own conclusions as to what it is, but I want to express my sentiments. I have always considered myself a staunch trade unionist through and through. My brother is in a utility workers union. All my friends I grew up with are firefighters and teachers, all dedicated members of UFA and UFT respectfully. My father was in the postal workers union, my grandfather an organizer in the famous garment workers union that led many of this city’s famous strikes. I believe in unions, they are a necessary part of our society, which offers a counterbalance to the unchecked power of the corporation or municipality. A system of checks and balances is as American as apple pie and that is what our union ensures! I also understand that the unionism of the past where all the workers would join together in solidarity is a long gone part of the labor movement which may never be found again, due to the lessened strength and numbers of union workers. Would I like it to be the days of my grandfather when the unions joined in arms and marched down Broadway? Who wouldn’t? But it’s simply not the reality in 2013. What I did in organizing with like-minded groups concerned for our public education is what unionism must look like today, which is social justice unionism. We learned this most valuable lesson from the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) who challenged the so-called reform (anti-unionized teacher) movement by joining with the community. Did CTU fight for a fair contract and better school day, typical “bread and butter” union issues? Yes, but they also fought for smaller class-sizes and more services for their students which endeared them to the public. If the example set by CTU and their President Karen Lewis is social justice unionism, then count me in. Of course I want to focus on teacher-centered issues such as better wages, retention of our benefits, and protection from harassment by school officials. I also want to better the school day for my students by offering a more robust curriculum, more activities after school, and more services such as guidance and nurses for all our students. After all the children are why we became teachers. If social justice unionism is fighting for egalitarianism for all my students, not only the equality of opportunity that presented itself after the civil rights movement, but equality of conditions for all students of all communities, then I am a social justice unionist. I have African-American, Hispanic, and LGBT students that tell me explicitly they feel unwelcome and discriminated against on a daily basis. Am I supposed to look at them and say “sorry kid I have to fight for a contract I have no time for you or your social justice issues.” That sounds ridiculous, but just as much as those who say MORE is wrong for fighting for social justice. In the end does the label really matter or is it the fact that in my school we organized and mobilized with others to challenge the attacks to our public education system.
There are going to be detractors of MORE who try to paint us as nothing more than a leftist radical group. First I challenge that claim by pointing to my own membership and leadership of this group. I am a registered Republican, a believer in capitalism (a Keynesian one), firm patriot who is the brother, son, grandson, great-grandson, and best friend- of those who served this great country and I am a most loyal believer in American Exceptionalism. This is not leftism. Are there leftists in this group? Yes, because we are open and welcoming to all. As an American I feel it is my duty to protect and accept all ideologies even if they are not my own. Our group does not have a homogenous political ideology, but as any American I feel glad to live in a country where all thoughts are welcome. I see no need to apologize for being in a group that is diverse politically, any more than I need to apologize for being in a family that is diverse culturally. To paint MORE with a broad stroke of radical leftists is an easy way of dismissing us without actually listening to us, much of what our foes want you to do. MORE may be composed of several different ideologies, but we all agree wholeheartedly on democracy, and the need for more of it within our union and school system, call that left or right, I call it American.
MORE meetings are not homogenous echo chambers where one member speaks and all agree, rather they are a place for open discourse which makes for a better union group. In my high school U.S. History classes and Government course I welcome disagreements and debate among my students. That’s actually my strength in pedagogy, facilitating respectful disagreements where my students must defend their position while challenging the opposition using relevant facts. If that environment is successful in my classroom why shouldn’t it be welcome in our union meetings? I simply would not feel comfortable in a room where everyone agreed all the time, discourse is healthy and helps me to strengthen my convictions or even at times change my view.
On whether MORE is a bunch of radicals: for starters, when did the term become derogatory? Our country was founded by radicals who would have been tried for treason had the monarch and his parliament had their way. Every successful movement of progress this country has encountered has been labeled as radical, from abolitionists, to civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights; all were labeled as radical at one point or another. Yet all were tremendously successful!
Let us stipulate that the term “radical” is negative. Look at those who seek to destroy public education. Are they not radical? It is the so called “reformers” who radically spend millions of dollars to close down public schools and bust our unions. It is the politicians who have radically changed the public education system by introducing standardized testing to children as young as six year olds.
To those who will label MORE radical: What has been so crazy that we have done? We have fought for our students to have adequate services during Hurricane Sandy, we have showed up to school closing hearings to defend the children of those schools, we have even had the nerve to ask our union leadership to allow for a rank and file full member vote on any new evaluation agreement that will radically affect “our student’s learning conditions and our working conditions” because of the new reliance on even more assessments. Our leadership answered by telling us that only chapter leaders and delegates have the power to make this decision. And they call us the crazy ones!
The lessons here are simple. Grassroots activism in building alliances with all those involved in public schools can and must be part of our strategy. Social justice unionism is just a way of stating that MORE will fight for teachers, while defending our students and their parents against “reform” fraud. There may be those that label us as radical leftists, but that is just their way of getting you to ignore the content of our arguments, because they know our points are better. If this sounds reasonable to you then join MORE, help us to preserve the public school system and union, which we all truly endear.
UFT Delegate- Leon M. Goldstein H.S. Brooklyn, NY
Vice President at Large candiate for The Movement of Rank & File Educators (MORE)