Sunday, June 17, 2018

Who Are We?

That's the chant at the increasingly rare rallies and demonstrations we attend. Education VP Evelyn de Jesus used this chant at the Puerto Rican Day Parade a little, and that's why it's sticking in my head.

Since I ran for a NYSUT post a few years back I've been very conscious of what UFT means. Former PJSTA President Beth Dimino, who essentially drafted and prepped me for that run, very specifically told me that I must always say leadership when I was criticizing union positions. After all, she said, you are UFT.

Of course she was and is right. So I often think of that when I read questions like, "What is the UFT gonna do about this or that?" If I were asking that question, I'd ask, "What is leadership gonna do about this or that?" Increasingly, I refrain from asking even that. Instead, my first thought is what can I do about this or that?

Admittedly, I'm in a unique position. I have this blog, and have had for a while. I can write elsewhere too. UFT high school teachers elected me to the Executive Board, and as such I have the ear of leadership a few times each month. It's also not very hard for me to reach out to various people in leadership positions.

Of course, that's not to say you couldn't do the same. Most everyone has a chapter leader. If you don't, or if you have one you don't like, you can move up the ladder to the District Rep. You can contact the person who runs your borough office. You can write to pretty much anyone and everyone. I know I do.

We say a lot of things at Executive Board, but we don't get a lot of things passed. We also don't always get clear or satisfactory answers to our questions. This notwithstanding, we have an influence. We've brought a whole lot of people to testify at Executive Board.  We've been able to draw attention to a whole lot of inequities. Some continue, like Adult Education, and some have been improved, like CPE 1. The push for parental leave came through us, and while it's not yet resolved, it seems to have legs. (I love the button UFT put out, even though it only has tiny feet.)

I've been instrumental in getting only a few resolutions passed. The first was for the ELLs I serve, whose direct instruction has been sorely cut by the newest version of CR Part 154. UFT resolved that ELLs need more instruction, not less, and NYSUT soon followed suit with the same thing. Another was very recent, when we condemned Mayor de Blasio's vulgar stereotype of UFT sexual harassment victims as having a "hyper-complaint dynamic."

I've also been instrumental in having a large number of resolutions go down in flames, to be perfectly frank. We asked for a chapter for ATRs. We asked for an option for fewer observations. We've asked for many things, more than I can recall right now. We've made several appeals toward class size. Our most recent class size resolution passed, but Unity cut the particular targets we'd demanded. We now have a class size resolution with no particular target class sizes. I think I missed the DA in which that was proposed, but I'd probably have voted against it. What's the point of a class size resolution that fails to address class size?

Here's the thing--I'm a realist, at least some of the time. I don't expect leadership to hop when I click my fingers. I mean, it would be okay with me if they chose to go that route, but I don't envision it happening in this lifetime, at least. I do believe, though, that they hear us. They hear us even though they vote down a good number of our initiatives. Just because our resolution is voted down, I don't believe it's dead in the water.

There are not a whole lot of touchy issues that come before the Executive Board. That's largely because the only people on it who bring up things beyond mom and apple pie are the high school reps. It's true that a lot of people will make reports from districts on this or that event, but they're not controversial. The UFT got a whole bunch of people together for a meeting, or gave prom dresses to hundreds of high school students. No one I know questions any of these things.

It's important, though, that real member issues come before this body. It's important that people know this body exists, and that people know they're allowed to address it if necessary. I think this blog and our Executive Board blog, by recording the meetings, have contributed toward this. If I recall correctly, Emily James, when addressing parental leave, said she'd previously been unaware these meetings even happened, let alone that she had the right to address them. Hopefully we're changing that in some small way.

I'm now entering my tenth year as chapter leader of the largest school in Queens, and my viewpoints are evolving. I can no longer simply say the UFT should do this, or failed to do that. I will act. I will speak. I will vote. I will write, and I will try to move the union into a new position. These things don't happen easily. They also don't happen without the cooperation of the majority caucus. I have issues with that caucus and how it's run. I have issues with what that caucus sees as activism. But the leaders of that caucus can accomplish a lot if they choose, so why not give them a push in the right direction?

That said, no caucus leader, no union president, can simply push a button and negotiate absolutely everything for absolutely everyone. When is everyone gonna be happy? Probably never.

I know a member who will probably not pay dues after Janus. This is because one decision didn't go his way. I worked pretty hard to help this member, but the superintendent had the last word, and it wasn't the one we wanted. I always try to win, but I'm not always successful. I try to think of ways to increase the odds. Who can I call? Who can that person call? What can I write and where can I write it?

Sometimes I win. I always want to win, but sometimes I lose. This happens in my dealings with union leadership, with my school administration, and with the DOE. I understand why this member thinks union is 100% a failure, but it isn't. Even if the contract sucks, it's a whole lot better than the alternative--the nothing many New Yorkers have. This is an "at will" employment state, so without a contract, your employer can dump you for a bad haircut.

Union, like health care, is something you don't worry about until you need it. I am acutely aware of when union helped me most. Years ago, before I was chapter leader, I spoke to a NY Times reporter about two students I had in my ESL classes who spoke English fluently but were illiterate. When the reporter sent a fax with my name in it to the DOE, a former principal waged a small war against me, which included calling me into his office at odd times and making me report to him before I went home at the end of the day. This was for the offense of reporting his mistake that affected my students. I didn't reach out to anyone, and no UFT employee needed to intervene, but this man would've fired me if he could have. UFT saved my job via its mere existence.

Years later, I've become a worse and more enduring pain in the ass than that principal or I could've even imagined. I have no idea how many reporters I've since spoken to, both on and off the record. I am enabled and empowered by union. Unlike my member, who I doubt will pay, I know that one fight does not define who I am, or who we are. I know that one loss does not negate a major and ongoing win. I know I want my daughter and students to have the option and protection of union.

I will do everything in my power to sustain union membership in and out of my building. Screw Janus and the rock from which he crawled out under. Screw the Koch brothers and the Walmart family, and everyone and anyone who financed him. Screw Donald Trump and the judge he cheated into SCOTUS, after his party denied Obama his appointment, with Trump's explicit blessing.

I'll work to make the union better, but I'll also fight to make sure not only we, but also those who follow us have it. That's the least I can do.
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