The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2013

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MAR 2013 Issue

A Groundswell of Teachers Wants More

In January, United Federation of Teachers (UFT) president Michael Mulgrew once again became a public punching bag when Mayor Michael Bloomberg denounced his union’s reluctance to acquiesce to his demands regarding teacher evaluations, comparing the UFT to the National Rifle Association. In a way, the name-calling helped Mulgrew’s standing among the rank-and-file, clarifying to them that the lack of an agreement was the result of Bloomberg’s intransigence.

But the members of the union’s new dissident caucus Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE) point to the fact that Mulgrew touted his willingness to make compromises on the issue that would erode job security for teachers and further turn public education into an eternal test preparation course. “You have to question the approach of collaboration when the people you are collaborating with are out to destroy you,” said Julie Cavanagh, the 34-year-old Brooklyn special education teacher running for president on the MORE slate in the UFT election in April.

One part of this campaign is demanding better advocacy for schools’ issues, such as resisting privatization, merit pay, school closings, and the emphasis on standardized tests. Another is taking the union beyond these “bread and butter” issues, in order to make it an agent of economic justice in order to address the societal issues that affect public education. But on a grander level, MORE, modeled after the dissident Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) that took control of the Chicago Teachers Union in 2010, is organizing against what it sees as corporate unionism that keeps teachers in this target position, with few tools to fight back. Once a hardscrabble union in the early Albert Shanker era, the UFT is now a top-down special interest lobby that shows its strength not through massive demonstrations but via the work of its well-paid army of technocrats.

Bloomberg’s three-term tenure has placed unionized teachers on the defensive. In the past 10 years, 100 schools have closed in the city and teachers have been without a contract for three years. Teachers no longer get reimbursed for school supplies, even though as Cavanagh explained, “the average teacher spends hundreds if not thousands of dollars out of pocket each year.” Teachers are buried in administrative busywork, she claimed, and noted that even though there is a cap on class size, the union’s leadership hasn’t enforced it. Bloomberg’s last budget proposal before he leaves office includes cutting 2,500 teacher jobs through attrition.

Throughout the onslaught against union teachers, Mulgrew’s Unity caucus, which has held uninterrupted power in the UFT for five decades, maintains its position in part through allowing its retirees to vote in elections as well as by appointing district representatives rather than electing them. Dissidents claim these staff jobs are political rewards for caucus loyalists, who in turn hand down information from the central office to chapter leaders regarding day-to-day representation issues, but don’t interact with the rank-and-file and have little interest in bringing workers into the fold. “There’s no way to promote things within the union,” said Seku Brathwaite, a math teacher in Manhattan running for executive board with MORE. “If they don’t want to deal with something they close it off.”

As a result, few teachers get educated about how the union works and they have few avenues to participate, which is why MORE proposes to elect rather than appoint district leaders and tie staff salary and benefits to those of the members they work for. “Teachers and guidance counselors are frustrated by a lack of communication,” said Rosie Frascella, a high school teacher running for executive board with MORE. “There’s no education on what a union is. That’s something that my union is struggling with because we lost what that means. We think of a union as ‘my health insurance and my dental plan’” instead of a way to have “a collective voice inside our schools.”

Cavanagh is the cheery face of dissident militancy. Unlike her running mate, long-time International Socialist Organization activist Brian Jones, she’s fairly new to rabble-rousing, going to her first protest in 2009 to demonstrate against school closings. Between taping a campaign video and entertaining her 7-month-old son on a Saturday afternoon in January, she explains that MORE is the consolidation of two dissident factions, Teachers for a Just Contract and the Independent Community of Educators, and includes members of the New York Community of Radical Educators, the Grassroots Education Movement and Teachers Unite.

Cavanagh admits that the campaign against Mulgrew will be an uphill battle. “We’re trying to get into other schools, into mail boxes,” she said. “We have a team of bloggers, and the traditional boots on the ground.”

And while a victory for the dissidents in 2013 seems unlikely, MORE sees the organizing as direly necessary. “Our main strategy is to use the elections as an outreach tool to build a better rank-and-file movement around the city,” said Queens math teacher Peter Lamphere. “The UFT election is one of the few times when rank-and-filers can go into any school and it’s a chance to expand the reach of the message for more union democracy and social justice unionism to schools where we haven’t been able to get that out.”

The election might not result in Mulgrew’s ouster, but the hope is that it will ignite a discussion of whether the union can move beyond the role of filing grievances and negotiating contracts. Rather than a narrow focus on collective bargaining, MORE wants teachers to be part of a labor movement that fights the social and economic injustices that help produce educational inequality.

“It’s hard to teach students when they have a full time job after school or they’re undocumented or they’re living in a homeless shelter,” Frascella said. “In my school, I’m dealing with students who survived an earthquake in Haiti. There are a lot of different issues that are going on. We need to be looking at different ways to support our students.”

Mulgrew, who would not comment on the election, has gained attention and respect among politicians and observers as a pragmatic player in the education reform debate since becoming president in 2009 and winning overwhelming reelection to a full term the next year. Most notably, he worked with the Department of Education to end the notorious “rubber rooms,” where teachers under suspicion of wrongdoing would sit idly for months or even years while their cases were stalled in the backlog. Under his watch the UFT has used legal channels to attempt to stop school closings and has supported legislation that would give more community input when charter schools want to occupy public buildings.

“Teachers’ unions have to be about education reform themselves in order to continue to have public support and to continue to reach their goal of educating students and protecting the interests of teachers,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, who has written extensively on labor in education, including a biography on Shanker. “Education reform is here, it’s going to continue to be here, and the question is how you shape it.”

He added that the perception is that unions are solely about resistance to change, and haven’t been proactive in offering new reforms on their won. “This would seem an odd time for a kind of the left to suggest the UFT hasn’t gone far enough,” he said.

That’s partially why the Chicago teachers’ strike, characterized as an energized show of force, was a particularly awkward moment for labor’s ruling aristocracy. It proved to be a successful collaboration between teachers and parents fighting for better schools. Moreover, it was a strike against a Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel, a close ally of President Barack Obama, which took place during the latter’s reelection campaign.

The action, indirectly, was also against the status quo of public sector unionism, which is based on a close relationship between unions and the Democrats, who, when it comes to education, are major proponents of charter schools and shrinking teachers’ union power. For example, during run-up to the strike, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, a former UFT leader, split her time between addressing members in Chicago and attending the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. One of the nation’s most prominent unionists faced the labor’s most famous question: Which side was she on? Answer: It wasn’t clear.

That is why this election is not just a local union election. Including Weingarten, three of the four presidents of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have been former UFT leaders. The UFT, once the largest local union in the country, has the majority of delegates in the AFT. “The UFT essentially controls the national union because of the delegate count,” Cavanagh said.

An impressive showing by MORE may embolden other dissidents in other cities where teachers unions have been under the gun of charter school C.E.O.s and politicians, or at the very least, send a message to the union’s leadership that more militant action must be taken, like the teachers’ refusal to use standardized tests in Seattle earlier this year. MORE does not want to be wedded to talking to systems managers who want to turn schools into businesses, but instead demands community control of schools, where pedagogues and parents stand at the forefront of policy making.

That’s a far cry from the system New York City has now. Take, for example, former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s comments to the Council on Foreign Relations last year that the biggest problem with American public education was its failure to produce enough qualified workers and people to advance American foreign policy. In this view, public education is not a social good, a place for critical thinking, in order to develop critical minds and life skills. Instead, it’s an increasingly privatized training ground for the American empire.

At present, the leadership of the UFT and the AFT do what any pragmatic union does: Fight to increase the pay and benefits inside the existing system. But what anyone interested in education as a public service needs is a collective, Mario Savio-like rejection of the idea of education as an industry, with teachers being the mere employees, and students the raw material. Any other path turns the union into a mirror image of its supposed adversary, a service-oriented entity that deals with monetary transactions for company employees—rather than a social group of like-minded thinkers participating in a democracy.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2013

All Issues