Friday, March 19, 2010

The UFT Needs Independent Voices—Part One

UFT politics can be pretty complicated.  Every three years we have an election to select hundreds of representatives.  The 500-pound gorilla in this fight, without a doubt, is the Unity Caucus, which has controlled the UFT for half a century.  Opposition parties have made inroads now and then, but Unity’s been pretty successful at keeping them at bay, particularly since 2003.

It's not just the politics--even the ballot is complicated.  You have your choice of voting for a slate, or choosing hundreds of individual candidates.  One year I chose the latter method, and it took me over an hour to wade through the 1,300 odd names.  I’ve since given up on playing individual favorites.  I’m told that 2,000 teachers were disqualified last year for selecting not only a slate, but also individual candidates.   The ballot could be streamlined by allowing members to vote for categories rather than only individuals, but thus far the UFT has not chosen to do so.

Not many people understand how the UFT is run.  Teachers don’t take much of an active interest either.  In fact, fewer than 25% of working teachers bothered to vote in the last UFT election.  Is it apathy?  Is it forgetfulness?  Or is it that teachers honestly don’t believe their votes will make any difference?

After all, there’s been one-party rule at the UFT, well, forever.  New chapter leaders are offered free trips to conventions and recruited into the invitation-only Unity Caucus. They then sign an application, which specifically states that members will “express criticism of caucus policies within the Caucus” and “support the decisions of Caucus / Union leadership in public or Union forums.”  Essentially, it’s a loyalty oath, and it pretty much predetermines what passes at the UFT Delegate Assembly.

Now don’t get me wrong—I’m a fervent union supporter.  Working people do much better with unions.   I feel much better facing Joel Klein with 80,000 UFT teachers standing beside me, and anyone who wouldn’t is simply nuts. Teachers represent the last bastion of vibrant unionism in the country, and that, of course, is why we’re under constant attack.

But what happens when the ruling caucus makes poor decisions?  Wouldn’t teachers benefit from independent voices standing up for what’s right, even if the ruling caucus were in disagreement?  How does it advance our interests when our Delegate Assembly is an echo chamber in which dissenting voices are grudgingly heard, then shouted down and ridiculed, likely as not from a supposedly impartial chair?  Shouldn’t we have a voice at least in proportion to the percent of votes we win?  And really, doesn’t someone need to speak up when the emperor has no clothes? 

For example, the UFT supported mayoral control at its inception, and again last summer.  Mayoral control has been a disaster for teachers, and we got a rather nasty wakeup call January 26th, when Mayor Bloomberg used his rubber stamp PEP to close 19 schools, ignoring every speaker and four boroughs.  The fact that every speaker who rose spoke against it was of no importance.  The opposition of four of five boroughs meant nothing. The fact that closings may have been based on false statistics was of no consequence.  How on earth could we have endorsed such a system—essentially a dictatorship?

But that’s what we’re up against nowadays.  Given that, why did we not take a principled stand against Mayor Bloomberg?   Why didn’t we take a real look at Tony Avella, who spoke strongly and decisively against the anti-union, anti-democratic policies of Mayor Michael Bloomberg?

It’s likely because the UFT had a carefully cultivated ally in Bill Thompson, until we went and stabbed him in the back by declining to endorse him (he returned the favor—so much for deeply held values), buying into Mayor Bloomberg’s PR of invincibility.  A UFT source told me before the election that it wasn’t worth their getting involved, as the UFT could only sway perhaps 5% of the electorate.  We now know that if we’d achieved that, Mayor Bloomberg could well have been history.  And it was not so difficult to determine the polls were wrong—had Mayor Bloomberg really been 18 points up he wouldn’t have run such a relentlessly negative campaign.

But we really need to take the union in a new direction—and not the direction of collaboration with this mayor, or selling out to Unity for a few patronage jobs a la New Action.

To be continued...
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