Teachers want MORE from the UFT

December 3, 2015

UFT member Hannah Fleury reports on a meeting of the union's social justice caucus.

IN NEW York City, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), the social justice caucus of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), is gearing up for union elections this coming spring. MORE and the New Action caucus have joined together and chosen Jia Lee as their candidate for president of the union.

Lee is a strong candidate who will help take the union in a more combative direction. She is known both for refusing to administer Common Core standardized tests to her students (as well as opting out her own child) and testifying in the Senate about the opt-out movement. She embodies social justice unionism in her record of building alliances with parents and communities and thus can fight for a vision of a more accountable union and for quality public education.

Speaking at the closing plenary of MORE's October 25 conference, titled "State of the Union, State of the Schools," Lee outlined the hypocrisy of the corporate deformers in using a version of "stack ranking"--a failed corporate experiment of ranking employees and periodically firing the bottom 10%--which is essentially the way teachers are being evaluated today.

New York City teacher and MORE member Jia Lee (left)
New York City teacher and MORE member Jia Lee (left)

She also talked about the importance of the union fighting back--and encouraged those present at the caucus conference to think about taking job actions themselves. To those afraid of the possible retaliation, Lee said, "I'm more afraid of what will happen if we don't [fight back]."

THE MORE conference highlighted the commitment of educators to improve their working conditions and the learning conditions of their students. Main themes running through the meeting were the need to building links with parents, students and community activists to fight racism, and how to pressure the UFT to become a more responsive and combative union.

The morning plenary set the tone for the day. Charmaine Dixon, a public school parent and member of the educational justice group Change the Stakes, started off by talking about her experience opting her own children out of state tests, and how that opened her eyes to a system that was working against her family and other working families. She noted the hypocrisy of education deformers who send their kids to private schools that don't test, yet insist on a test-and-punish regime for underfunded public schools.

Joe Burns, author of Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor's Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today, followed. He spoke about the unique position of public-sector workers, which "inherently political," Burns said. He pointed to the example of the sanitation workers in Memphis, whose cause fused with the civil rights movement and garnered support and attention.

During the day, the workshops covered a range of topics and issues, including democratizing the UFT, building the opt-out campaign, the impact of homelessness and poverty on students, Common Core, segregation in schools and racial justice in the union. Workshops were designed to promote discussion and develop platform points for the UFT elections next year. In addition, discussion ran throughout the conference about social justice unionism and how to build MORE's strength.

MORE has debated how to address racism as a social justice caucus. This conference was a clear step forward in advancing a clear understanding of the role of racism in the fight for quality public education and improved working conditions for teachers and school staff. Sessions on racism, such as "Making Black Lives Matter in School: Racism and Racial Justice in Education," were some of the best attended.

Accountability and transparency were also themes all day. MORE member and special education teacher Megan Moskop talked about the lack of transparency of the UFT during a session. Afterward, she expanded: "The UFT will endorse someone because they think they will win. And they [the candidates] end up reversing stances or not even taking one. We should have a clear idea of what we think education should look like--and take that to politicians and see what they think."

Jamir Geidi, a former student of one Eva Moskowitz's Success Academy charter who was mistreated and made miserable, attended the MORE conference with his mother Fatima Geidi to show support.

Now in a progressive public school, Jamir is blossoming, although he still is recovering from a two-year academic delay that his mother attributes to time wasted at the Success Academy. Fatima Geidi said of the conference: "I appreciate knowing that behind closed doors on a Saturday, the teachers are still spending time fighting for our kids. To see it, it's heartwarming."

AT THE evening plenary, Caucus of Working Educators (CWE) member Ismael Jimenez spoke about how Philadelphia teachers were approaching challenges in their city, where the unelected boss of the system has declared war on public schools and the teachers' union.

Emphasizing the centrality of the fight for racial justice, Jimenez discussed how they explored, "Social justice unionism through a racial justice lens, not racial justice through the lens of social justice unionism." This emphasis has allowed them to build ties with students and parents. He also talked about how study groups were one way they strengthened and diversified their membership.

Lauren Cohen of MORE gave a moving personal account of how her experiences as a teacher led her to join MORE. For her, she explained, social justice unionism "meant finding the courage to stand up to untenable situations...The rank and file has numbers. My experiences are not unique but common place." She concluded by emphasizing the importance of getting UFT members to vote in the election and of building the opt-out movement.

Liza Campbell, a Seattle teacher reporting back from the successful strike there, spoke at length about what it took to win and offered some lessons for teachers to apply here. She described the power of solidarity that was palpable in the unanimous strike vote, noting that a voice vote of thousands of members "will give you chills." She also noted the significance of ending the policy of evaluating teachers based on test scores at a time when Race to the Top dominates national discussions of public education.

She talked about how even though Social Equality Educators (SEE), the sister caucus to MORE, didn't win their most recent election, their campaign put pressure on the Seattle Education Association (SEA) to be more accountable to its membership. She argued that "MORE has the power--elected or not--to push the UFT to take up issues of social justice."

Building on themes of the day, she talked about the importance of building connections between the union, parents and social movements. Thus, the fight for recess which began as a demand by parents became a key union demand, and the demand for racial equity in schools helped to connect with the Black Lives Matter movement. "Teachers have the power to change the direction of public education," she argued.

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