More accomplishments in the UFT

June 13, 2016

New York City teacher Bill Linville analyzes the outcome of the United Federation of Teachers recent election--and explains what it means for rank-and-file activists.

IN THE election for United Federation of Teachers (UFT) officers, executive board, and state and national convention delegate positions, the incumbent Unity Caucus swept all major officer and delegate positions of the New York City teachers union.

But an opposition slate sponsored by two reform caucuses--the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) and New Action--made significant gains in this election, winning all seven high schools seats on the 102-member UFT Executive Board.

MORE/New Action got 51.2 percent of the vote of active high school teachers. Overall, the joint slate won 29 percent of the vote from in-service members and about 33 percent of the vote from active teachers. MORE/New Action got the highest opposition vote totals since 2001 in every active division, though the combined percentages for MORE/New Action remained roughly the same in each division.

This is the first time since 2004 that an opposition caucus which didn't support the Unity Caucus candidate for president won seats on the Executive Board.

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

Marcus McArthur, a high school teacher who was elected to the Executive Board, emphasized the importance of the election results: "The rank and file have cast a vote for more democracy, more teacher autonomy, and more justice for our schools. I look forward to representing their voice and collaborating with my colleagues on the executive board for a better public school system in NYC."

The results show the depths of the continuing discontent and desire for a new direction within the UFT. The MORE/New Action slate, led by Jia Lee, a champion of the energetic opt-out movement in New York, was able to galvanize these sentiments by putting social justice at the heart of its election campaign.

The results also show the significant challenges ahead in transforming the UFT--which can open the way for a continuing discussion among rank-and-file teachers, including around contentious issues related to the central idea of social justice unionism that polarized members of MORE at times in the recent past.

SOCIAL JUSTICE union advocates around the country should take heart in MORE/New Action's electoral gains. Winning change in the UFT--where the Unity Caucus has dominated the union for many decades with a patronage machine that doles out union jobs and strict adherence to discipline among supporters--could have a disproportionate impact on national teacher union policy.

MORE member Jia Lee received 10,743 votes in the presidential election against incumbent UFT leader Michael Mulgrew--for 20.9 percent of the overall vote, an increase of about 7 percentage points from 2013, and the highest vote total for an opposition candidate since 2001.

Lee has been a leader as a teacher and a parent in the opt-out movement against high-stakes standardized testing. She refused to give Common Core tests to her students and testified in Congress against high-stakes standardized testing the following year. In April, she spoke in favor of opt-out with two other MORE teachers on local TV, despite threats from Chancellor Carmen Farina that teachers encouraging opt-out could face disciplinary action.

MORE's selection of Lee as presidential candidate was in sharp contrast to the UFT leadership's refusal to support the opt-out movement. In fact, UFT leaders helped to craft the current state evaluation system and supported Common Core, and while the national American Federation of Teachers (AFT) received $4.4 million to help develop these standards.

At the 2014 AFT convention, Mulgrew let loose against opponents of standardized testing:

The [Common Core State] standards are ours. Tests are ours. If someone takes something from me, I'm going to grab it right back out of their cold twisted sick hand and say, "That's mine! You do not take what is mine! And I'm going to punch you in the face and push you in the dirt."...These are our tools! And you sick people need to be away from us and the children that we teach.

In March 2015, the Unity Caucus-dominated Delegate Assembly voted against considering a MORE-sponsored resolution that would have supported the opt-out movement. At this meeting, Mulgrew made erroneous claims that opting out would lead to loss of school funding.

MORE'S ASSOCIATION with the opt-out movement was part of an explicit emphasis on social justice issues and other questions affecting our students, as well as demands that improve the working conditions of educators. Worked out democratically within MORE starting with last fall's "State of the Union, State of the Schools" conference, the MORE platform for the elections consisted of five central points:

-- Enforce Our Contract and Organize for a Just Contract in 2018
-- Defend Public Education
-- Combat Systemic School Segregation and Racism
-- Support Opt-Out and Oppose Common Core, Danielson Evaluations and High-Stakes Testing
-- Make the UFT a Democratic, Transparent and Accountable Union

This was only the second set of elections in which MORE ran. New Action has been an opposition caucus since the mid-1980s. Starting in 2004, it made an agreement to support the Unity Caucus, but this ended in the run-up to the 2016 election after a series of broken promises from Mulgrew. This led to the agreement between MORE and New Action to run together in the 2016 election.

MORE also hoped to use the election to further solidify a base in the schools and to strengthen and systematize its literature distribution network. The caucus accomplished modest gains in this area. But with over 1,800 schools in the city, it will be a big challenge to build a network of activists in hundreds of schools.

The ultimate goal should be to build chapters that can mobilize to improve our working conditions and our students' learning conditions. As the Verizon workers showed with their recent victory, our greatest power as workers lies in the ability to take collective action--building school-based networks is an essential step in the process.

ONE CHALLENGE in building this network stems from member disengagement from the union. Though voter turnout for active members increased by 8 percentage points over 2013, it remained an abysmal 25 percent.

The voting process itself is to blame for some of the perennially low turnout in UFT elections. Members receive a ballot in the mail, rather than voting in the schools directly, as they do for ratification of a collective bargaining agreement. UFT members may confuse the ballot with junk mail, and some members may never receive one if the union doesn't have an up-to-date address for them.

More fundamentally, though, the low turnout is related to an overworked and dissatisfied membership. The Unity leadership has depended on a top-down strategy of lobbying and has been ineffective in mounting grassroots campaigns to improve chapter organization and improve working conditions. Many educators are completely uninvolved in union activity at the school and city level.

There is also dissatisfaction stemming from the 2014 contract agreement. This contract delayed until 2018 full implementation of raises that other city workers received in 2009-10 and have been earning ever since--and delayed full retroactive payment of back pay until the final installment in October 2020. Educators who leave the system or are on leave, including maternity leave, don't receive the retroactive payments.

The contract created a fast track to termination for teachers in the Absence Teacher Reserve (ATR) whose schools were closed or positions were eliminated. The contract also obliges the UFT to find more and more health care savings for each year of the contract. The latest "savings" have led to dramatic increases in co-payments--from $50 to $150 for emergency room visits, $15 to $50 for urgent care visits and $15 to $50 for MRIs.

All of these concessions came at a time when the city had a sizable budget surplus. But the UFT went with a very minimal public contract campaign. MORE was the biggest voice speaking out against ratification of the contract, holding informational happy hour meetings across the city and authoring articles that spread quickly among UFT members.

Meanwhile, a new statewide evaluation system that bases 40 percent of teacher ratings on student test scores has created a great deal of tension and uncertainty. Though the state government recently put a four-year moratorium on using Common Core growth scores in grades 3-8 for teacher evaluation, major problems remain.

On this, too, MORE led the way, launching a petition campaign in 2013 against the evaluation system while the UFT leadership supported the state legislation that put it in place--and challenging the Unity Caucus in the Delegate Assembly earlier this year.

In addition to these campaigns MORE has also been able to cultivate a modest following among chapter leaders, delegates and other rank-and-file activists by building a series of campaigns and workshops oriented to school-based organizing. MORE's chapter-leader list-serve has quickly become a go-to resource for activists looking for advice and organizing strategies.

STILL, THE battle to democratize and transform the UFT is a tall order--and the fight against privatization and for democratization in public education is a taller one still.

MORE will need to grow into an organization with hundreds of committed rank-and-file educators within the schools who are seen as the best defenders of the contract and our members' rights. We will want to model within our schools the types of democratic spaces we want to see within the entire union.

Plus, we should build alliances with parents, students and the community--by supporting struggles around education issues, such as the opt-out movement, as well as movements outside the schools that connect with the experiences of students, parents and teachers alike, such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the immigrant rights struggle.

On this last point, there has been debate within MORE. For example, a MORE statement on its website about a march to demand justice for NYPD murder victim Eric Garner in August 2014 didn't take a position for or against endorsement--while the UFT leadership rightly endorsed the march. The debate was damaging in large part because of the attempt to bridge positions in the caucus between endorsing and not endorsing the march.

The statement also encouraged "the leaderships of the UFT and PBA [the police union], to find ways to work together and unite us." This call for solidarity with a reactionary police union led some anti-racist teachers to drift away from MORE--and to a series of rancorous discussions within the group, as many supporters recognized the need to retract the statement, while others hardened their positions in its defense.

In these discussions, some within MORE express fear of alienating more conservative elements among the UFT rank and file, and concern that focusing on anti-racist and social justice issues would cause the caucus to lose its focus on trying to improve teachers' working conditions.

But we shouldn't see a contradiction between fighting for social justice and bread-and-butter issues. We can be the most vocal fighters for the rights of all UFT members, while at the same time aiming to bring our co-workers along with us in struggles for justice and against racism in our communities. Our success depends on active support from parents, students and the community, and the social movements that express their concerns, about the schools and beyond them.

Post-election meetings and a summer retreat will provide MORE with an opportunity to continue these important discussions and solidify its social justice position. If MORE can build on the momentum of the 2016 election, it will be positioned to help build a powerful movement for education justice in New York City and beyond.

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