Monday, June 29, 2009
A Union that Believes in Nothing
That's our predicament in the UFT. Political expediency rules the day, and has for decades. No wonder we have no vision at the UFT, no proposition about what the future could look like. It's one contractual jujitsu maneuver after another. Like with merit pay; we will turn it into school bonuses. Better than direct merit pay? Yes, but still accepts the premise that we do what we do for money. That we can be bought just like the money grubbers on Wall St. That we don't stand for something greater.
The provision for no layoffs has paid off considerably. That I must concede. However, it came at a great cost: loss of seniority transfer, and grieving a letter in the file. These two provisions have made this system a living hell. Fear reigns in schools. A teacher can no longer escape a belligerent principal and find a place of mutual acceptance. They can be (and have been) pummeled with letters, of a dubious nature, in the file which can be used to U rate these teachers. Except under very limited circumstances, these letters cannot be challenged and generally must remain in the file for at three years (plenty of time to go after a teacher's license). It should have come at no surprise that the Chancellor created new budgeting rules shortly thereafter that charges schools more for experienced teachers compared to new teachers. We have painted ourselves into a corner.
I know our union leadership thinks that the members will never strike, and they are doing the best they can regarding this reality. This would be more plausible if the leadership demonstrated some level of commitment to principle, the kind that made this union. This union membership actually said "no" to former President Sandra Feldman to a contract offer, sent her back to the table. She came back with something better.
Instead we have had leadership that accommodates, or at best, does a jujitsu on the moves to dismantle the union. While I am myself a student of martial arts, I do think there's a limit to how far you can go rolling with the punches. There comes a time for direct confrontation. To do so, you need an alternative vision of the future that motivates your members to make the necessary sacrifices. Without such a vision, you have to appeal to your members' lowest motivations: their pocket books. The UFT constantly hails its (below inflation, BTW) "raises" their teachers have gotten as their success. All at the price of an increasing loss of control over their professional practice, a culture of fear and intimidation from corporate-style control over the school staff.
Take into account the crisis of democracy in the UFT that no one is talking about. Less than one third of the membership bothered to vote in the last union-wide elections. Union vice presidents are elected "at large" rather than from their direct constituencies (e.g. elementary school teachers elect the high schools vice president). District representatives are no longer elected by the school chapter leaders, for whom they serve, but are appointed. Should there be any surprise that a union, which is increasingly adopting a corporate-style bureaucracy itself, embrace such a system to govern schools?
The political machine that runs the union, Unity Caucus, has at its core a culture of secrecy and political favoritism. This explains the erosion of democracy and the selling out of the membership for politically expedient ends. If you believe only in feathering your nest, you won't make the hard choices that could put you at risk of going jail for a while why your membership goes out on strike. Loyal Unity members get first pick of paid after school positions and executive appointments. These caucus members may not speak publicly about union issues without getting clearance from the caucus. It's part of the agreement to be in the caucus. They go to the delegate assembly with their marching orders on how to vote on any given resolution. It makes the DAs a foregone conclusion.
Only leadership that can offer an alternative vision of the future for public education has any hope of survival for the union. Right now the Mayor's vision is driving the system, and it's in line with the broader, national, neo-liberal vision of a private school system, feeding at the public trough. It's a vision that sows the seeds of our destruction as a union and democratic society. The labor movement has an opportunity to fashion an alternative vision. Time is running out.