Wednesday, December 03, 2008

ATRs/Seniority Rights: The Fight for All Members’ Rights

By Angel Gonzalez, Retired UFT Teacher

The October Delegate Assembly (DA) resolution calling for a mass Nov. 24 rally at the DOE was initiated by ATR Ad-Hoc Committee members who were supported by UFT opposition caucuses (e.g. ICE and TJC) and many other delegates who understand that seniority is a sacrosanct union provision. The resolution called for a protest to support the ATRS: “THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the UFT will organize a mass citywide rally to show our unity and strength, calling on the NYC Department of Education to reduce class size and give assigned positions to all teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve who want assignments before any new teachers are hired.”

While Randi Weingarten initially signaled tepid approval for this friendly amendment to support the ATRs, she simultaneously threatened to cancel support--and move the body to reject it--if she did not agree with the argument (the motivator) for it as presented by John Powers. The DA did overwhelmingly approve the call for this “Support the ATRs” rally, with Ms. Weingarten’s subsequent approval.

Perhaps Ms. Weingarten’s reluctance to support such a militant mobilization, initiated at the grass roots, was due to the realization that the source of the ATRs’ predicament lay in our last contract, in which the UFT Executive Board negotiated away seniority transfer rights. For years, the UFT leadership’s strategy has been to lobby government officials for “favors” to our members in exchange for an endorsement from our union. This focus on intimacy at the top has contributed to our leaders’ becoming disconnected from our day-to-day reality in the classroom. Depending upon fickle politicians as opposed to the strength and conviction of our members has served to backfire on teachers and the students and families we serve.

The DA is the body that should direct the UFT Executive Board. If this is so, why do so many delegates feel that the Executive Board has to approve our decisions in order for them to be realized? In truly democratic structures, the leadership fulfills the will of the membership—not the other way around. Our DA saw an opportunity to seize the moment and affirm that reducing class size while also allowing our experienced teachers to continue to offer their expertise benefits students and honors the hard-won rights that our colleagues fought so hard for in years past.

As the Nov. 24 date set for the rally approached, and as rank and file members began to be energized with the feeling that together we were finally fighting back, the UFT Executive Board was quietly negotiating--what can only be characterized as a back-room deal--to temporarily stall the dismantling of seniority and tenure. It is unclear if the motivation for these discussions was to assuage the powerful City Administration who obviously did not approve of an angry rally exposing the outrage of the ATR fiasco, or to quell the spontaneous mobilization of so many members who felt that they were helping to construct a movement to defend our rights.

Ms. Weingarten’s proposal to alter the character of the rally into a silent candle-light vigil would have reduced us to a group of passive mourners, as opposed to a body of professionals rightly proclaiming what belongs to us, while exposing the City’s ill-conceived and costly indignation to which it condemns our ATRs. The DA was correct in indentifying the need for a mass rally, and strong member opposition to a “silent vigil” forced the Executive Board to back down.

A week before the rally, further attempts to squelch it materialized in the “deal” brokered by the Executive Board and the City—again only a temporary band-aid on a gaping wound. This agreement encourages, rather than mandates, placement of ATRs with an administration whose track record has shown unprecedented commitment to eat away at public unions’ power. It is tantamount to having the fox watch the chicken coop. The deal was characterized as a resolution to the issue by the UFT leadership, who decided there was no need for a rally after all.

It would appear that the threat of the rally was being utilized by the UFT leadership to maneuver this deal. This is corroborated by the fact that the Union made no genuine efforts to mobilize or organize in any broad way for this event. However, the passion of the members and our just cause began to take on a life of its own, beyond the leadership’s control. Teachers are tired of give-backs. We deserve more respect than that.

The final blow to this member-driven initiative was the Executive Board’s decision to call for a meeting to celebrate the band-aid “agreement” at Wall Street Headquarters, at exactly the same time as the rally! A leadership that truly supported its members’ needs and aspirations would have instead supported this rally. A subsequent meeting could have announced the proposed temporary stop-gap measure, with the recognition that serious errors were made in the 2005 negotiations—the framework that set these unfortunate events in motion.

Regardless, the ATR rally started at 4PM, bringing out over 200 spirited members -- thanks to the hard work of the rank and file organizers. Many speakers denounced both the City and the UFT officials who created this situation and allowed it to fester so long. Although Ms. Weingarten declared that the rally was unnecessary at the 4pm Wall Street “wine and cheese” meeting, she appeared with a bullhorn as the rally was winding down at 6pm (with about 75 people). She gave lukewarm thanks to the organizers, perhaps to assert a certain level of control or to save face, in light of such strong grass roots sentiment regarding what many have defined as a carefully crafted strategy to chip away at tenure .

When Marjorie Stamberg, a key rally organizer, approached the bullhorn to address the crowd, Ms. Weingarten refused to let her speak, chastising her “for what she did.” The crowd chanted: “Let Marjorie speak!” forcing Ms. Weingarten to relent. After Marjorie spoke, many members began to chant: “Restore Seniority Transfer Rights Now!” Clearly frazzled with the dissidence targeted at UFT leadership, the Executive Board’s contingent left the rally.

This rally was an excellent beginning in our hard battle ahead to restore our contractual seniority transfer rights, to protect tenure, and to bolster and defend our contract. In a truly democratic union, the leadership has faith in and responds to the will of the membership. The “deals” that have been made over the past 30 years to “save” unions have in fact resulted in the dismantling of Trade Unions and workers’ rights across this country.

We cannot abide continued UFT complicity with the City’s plans, which waste valuable qualified experienced educators--and over $75 million annually--while further diminishing the quality of education that our children deserve. Our communities have the right to know that part of this plan results in experienced and quality educators being replaced with less costly, less experienced teachers, thus impacting negatively on the quality of education for their children.

The lack of information, transparency and open debate in our union denies member input into critical issues about pedagogy and historic union rights. An uninformed membership gives even a well-intentioned leadership free rein to function as it pleases. As the economy worsens, we need to take a strong stand in defense of the rights of teachers and communities, rather than to facilitate the erosion of all that has been built over the years.

From the momentum generated by the ATR Ad-Hoc Committee, we could help to build a democratic movement within the UFT that recognizes that our strength derives from our members’ interactions, conversations and mobilizations. Such efforts will require a great deal of work, but the alternative is to passively stand by as we observe the destruction of quality education and ALL of our members’ rights.

We need to build the fight for a UFT contract that promotes and defends:
1. Seniority Rights
2. Tenure Rights
3. Smaller Class Size
4. Against All Merit Pay Schemes
5. Against the use of testing to rate teacher performance
6. Quality and Justice - Not Testing
7. No cutbacks
8. No more privatization schemes (Charter Schools and vouchers inclusive)
9. No layoffs and more.

Our current UFT leadership has not indicated its commitment to achieve these goals—it is up to the members to make this happen!

For more about the ATR Rally, the ATR issue, the current UFT-ATR agreement with the City and other comments go to:


blog comments powered by Disqus