Monday, January 27, 2014

On Reviving Unionism

Note: I was asked to write this by the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association, and it's cross-posted to their blog as well.

It's funny to hear people in NYSUT complaining about democracy. I'm chapter leader of one of the largest schools in NYC, and neither I nor anyone in my school gets to vote or participate at all in NYSUT or AFT. Though I've been elected twice, that means nothing. The only way a city teacher gets to be part of NYSUT is to be part of Unity, an invitation-only caucus that has run the union for over 50 years. I've never been invited.

The reason for that, I suppose, is my public point of view. I've been published in the Daily News, at Huffington Post, at Gotham Schools, on Schoolbook, on multiple blogs, and in local Queens newspapers taking positions contrary to those of UFT leadership. For example, I wrote a column labeling mayoral control mayoral dictatorship. Though giving Michael Bloomberg absolute power was a bad idea, the UFT supported it. After he used it to close schools all over the city, aiding no one but privatizers, we supported it again.

I also oppose value-added ratings for teachers, since they have no basis in science, and since great teachers have lost jobs as a result.  I can't support Common Core, no matter how many millions of dollars Bill Gates pours into it, as I don't believe it helps the students we serve when we fail most of them and use said failure to label working teachers as defective. Brilliant education historian Diane Ravitch shares my positions, and it's ironic to be excluded from not only UFT, but also NYSUT and AFT for the crime of sharing her opinions.

Lest you think I'm delusional, below is part of the pledge you must sign to join Unity, as the overwhelming majority of UFT chapter leaders have done.

  • To express criticism of caucus policies within the Caucus;
  • To support the decisions of Caucus / Union leadership in public or Union forums;
  • To support in Union elections only those individuals who are endorsed by the Caucus, and to actively campaign for his / her election;
  • To run for Union office only with the support of the caucus;
  • To serve, if elected to Union office, in a manner consistent with Union / Caucus policies
    and to give full and faithful service in that office;

Had I signed this, I'd have been unable to advocate for causes important to my members. In fact, I fail to see how we grow advocacy when our school leaders are prohibited from fighting the corporate reform that threatens to turn us all into Walmart associates. As in any group, some people in Unity are wonderful, and others not so wonderful. Some, I think, understand the need for change. But they can't stand up, or they'll be expelled. This is, sadly, another UFT tradition. According to David Selden, Unity members were expelled in the sixties for opposing the Vietnam War. History has proven those dissenters right, and will prove us right as well.

Our local, to many UFT members, is just a number you call when you need a pair of glasses. This worries me. I'm surprised to read NYSUT is what needs change. We are by far the largest component of NYSUT and we are in need of something well more than a revival. I'm ready and willing to help, and all UFT need do is ask.

Unfortunately, UFT finds my viewpoints too extreme, and prefers to exclude not only me, but every single teacher who shares my opinions. I don't personally know a single teacher who supports corporate reform. But many expect little from the UFT, which has failed to procure us a contract in four years or a raise in five. In fact, only 14% of working teachers voted in our last election, and 52% of votes received were from retirees.

Revival is something we surely need. But it needs to come in the form of something inclusive, something that respects those of us who feel the need to fight corporate reform and the junk science that accompanies it. I'm encouraged that AFT President Randi Weingarten has seen the light about VAM, and that NYSUT has rejected the preposterous policies of John King. Why on earth has it taken so long?

Now it's time to respect the viewpoints and interests of working teachers, and to utilize and encourage those of us who choose to be active. Unfortunately, any revival that willfully ignores what's been going on in New York City for half a century is no revival at all.
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