#RedForEd versus the UFT-Cuomo blues

May 11, 2018

Danny Katch writes from New York City on a conflict among the liberal left that exposes both sides: the United Federation of Teachers and the Working Families Party.

THIS SPRING, striking teachers across the South and West are showing the power of collective workplace action to overcome anti-union laws and Republican-dominated statehouses.

But the leadership of the country's largest teachers' union local doesn't appear to be taking any lessons from the "red state rebellion"--nor making significant financial contributions to their strike funds, for that matter.

Instead, the New York City-based United Federation of Teachers (UFT) leaders is doubling down on the losing strategy of kissing up (to undeserving Democrats) and kicking down (at union members and community organizations who dare to argue for another way.)

Last month, UFT president Michael Mulgrew emerged as the lead enforcer for Gov. Andrew Cuomo's thuggish efforts to intimidate progressives inside the Working Families Party (WFP) from supporting actress Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo's liberal challenger in the upcoming Democratic gubernatorial primary.

The WFP is a 20-year-old coalition of unions and nonprofit groups like Make the Road and New York Communities for Change. The party's goal is to use New York's unique electoral system to pull Democrats to the left by cross-endorsing progressive Democrats on the WFP ballot line, while (in theory) running independent candidates against conservative Democrats.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs a bill, flanked by union leaders, including UFT President Michael Mulgrew (directly behind Cuomo)
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs a bill, flanked by union leaders, including UFT President Michael Mulgrew (directly behind Cuomo) (Office of the Governor)

Sharp divisions emerged during the last primary battle in 2014 when unions barely prevailed in the fight to get the WFP to endorse Cuomo over liberal challenger Zephyr Teachout, despite his then-blatant record as an enemy of unions and public education.

This year, the party's nonprofit wing seemed determined to back Nixon and avoid the humiliation of having their supposedly independent and progressive party be once again forced to kiss Boss Andrew's ring.

But Cuomo, who continues to eye the White House--and who can blame him given that it's currently occupied by another Queens-born, vindictive, sour-faced troll?--will brook no democratic dissention inside his Democratic Party.

According to WFP state director Bill Lipton, the governor issued a chilling threat to nonprofits that receive major funding from their labor partners inside the WFP: "If unions or anyone give money to any of these groups [that have endorsed Nixon], they can lose my number."

When that didn't work, Cuomo had Mulgrew convene a meeting at UFT headquarters to deliver the hit: the departure of the WFP's largest remaining unions, including SEIU Local 32BJ and CWA District 1, and the announcement that they, along with the UFT, which left the WFP two years ago when the party endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, would be forming a new labor ballot line to endorse Cuomo--and attempt to mortally wound the WFP.

Cuomo spokeswoman Abby Fashouer then laughably announced that the governor would not seek the WFP endorsement to "stand in solidarity" with a labor movement that for most of the past eight years he has attacked and insulted.

THE CONTRAST couldn't be more stark between the approach of the UFT and teachers groups inside and outside the unions in states like West Virginia and Arizona.

Red-state teachers are standing up to bullying politicians while the far better-resourced UFT cowers before them. Red-state teachers built alliances by demanding funding for all public employees and social programs, while the UFT is threatening to cut funding from community organizations. Red-state teachers are fighting for democracy against one-party Republican rule, while the UFT is helping Cuomo quash the basic democratic process of a primary challenge.

It's especially galling for New York City teachers to watch their union line up with Cuomo, the man who spent most of his first two terms targeting the public education system--and teachers' unions in particular--as public enemy number one.

Running for re-election in 2014, Cuomo gave a rant worthy of the most wacked-out Tea Party libertarian, calling public schools "a monopoly" that needed to be broken up.

Like many backers of corporate-style education "reform," Cuomo demonized teachers' unions because he saw them as the main obstacle to his efforts to use the rollout of Common Core to implement flawed tests to fire teachers, and to close schools and replace them with charter schools, many of them backed by wealthy hedge-fund bankers who bankrolled his campaigns.

As it turned out, it wasn't the UFT that got in Cuomo's way, but parents and students in New York's historic opt-out movement. For three years in a row, over 200,000 students--one in five across the state--refused to take the state tests, a mass boycott that not only showed the unpopularity of Cuomo's plans, but rendered the testing data invalid.

By 2016, the opt-out movement had caused Congress to pass a new education bill that reduced some national testing mandates and forced then-President Obama--a leading force behind test-driven privatization--to admit that there was a problem with "over-testing."

SEEING THE writing on the wall and the shift in national politics, Cuomo backed off his plans to tie test scores to teacher evaluations, dropped his Ayn Randian rhetoric about public education and tacked left with headline-grabbing proposals--Minimum-wage increase! Free college tuition!--that were all undermined in the fine print.

As a Cuomo insider told the New York Post, the governor was watching Hillary Clinton's campaign struggle against Sanders, and he adjusted his coordinates accordingly:

Hillary may not implode, but if she does, Andrew is already making course corrections to position himself more favorably to the national Democrats in light of the rapid leftward turn of the grassroots.

Andrew is to the left of Sanders on guns, will have done a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave, he's banned fracking--his total transformation from centrist to "a leftist that actually gets things done" will be complete just in time for the beginning of the next presidential cycle.

Today, Cuomo courts public-sector unions with promises of progressive legislation, even as he compels unions to back former members of the infamous Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC).

The IDC recently disbanded, but for years, it was an organized group of conservative Democrats who caucused with Senate Republicans to block progressive legislation--which conveniently allowed the governor to give rhetorical support for important reforms while making sure they never got to his desk.

The former IDC members, like Cuomo, are all facing primary challenges from more progressive Democrats, so this means a sizable chunk of the New York labor movement is actively working to keep the Senate more conservative. An odd strategy in a moment where significant reforms, like Medicare For All, nurse-to-patient ratios and increases in school funding, all have unprecedented momentum.

Meanwhile, Cuomo's aggressive war on Cynthia Nixon, currently polling at just 28 percent, says much about his true intentions. In addition to wanting a large margin of victory for his presidential resumé, he's using the UFT and other unions to make a statement to the left: the limits of the possible are defined by whatever Andrew Cuomo says they are.

SO WHY are the UFT and other unions carrying Cuomo's water?

Because they're looking for protection from the looming Supreme Court Janus decision that is expected to decimate public-sector unions by barring them from collecting "fair share" representation fees from workers who are covered under a union contract, but aren't formally members of the union.

The day before Mulgrew led the union exodus from the WFP, he hosted Cuomo at UFT headquarters for a ceremony where the governor received a standing ovation as he signed legislation to help public-sector unions "recruit and retain members and limits the free services these unions...must provide to workers who are not paying their share of the costs of those services."

In other words, unions are standing with Cuomo--and crushing longtime allies who dare to criticize him--because they're so grateful that he's not going along with a union-busting scheme that 10 years ago was only a Koch Brothers wet dream.

"The idea that unions should think Cuomo is doing them a favor is ridiculous," says Sean Petty, a public hospital nurse and member of the New York State Nurses Association.

"Of course he doesn't want unions to go away--he thirsts after our PAC money, door knockers and phone bankers. Cuomo wants us healthy enough to keep our membership and dues money, but not strong enough to fight against the tax breaks and profiteering of his friends in real estate and health care."

The slavish support of union leaders for Cuomo isn't just embarrassing--it's ominous. Teachers should be wary of just how much Mulgrew is prepared to give up in exchange for keeping the dues money flowing.

Cuomo can easily revisit his plans to tie teacher evaluations to Common Core tests after his re-election--and threaten that he'll reverse his opposition to Janus-style union-busting if the UFT doesn't go along.

THIS DEBACLE has also shown the failure of the WFP's strategy of relying on alliances among union leaders and nonprofits to push the Democratic Party leftward, which is supposed to eventually embolden the labor movement to challenge hacks like Cuomo, but never does.

The weaknesses of this top-down approach are apparent not just in obvious defeats for the WFP, as in what's happened with Cuomo, but even in victories for the party, as with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

De Blasio, who has been enthusiastically backed by the WFP in his two terms, is not an enemy of public education like Cuomo. But he's not a fighter for it either.

Instead, de Blasio has avoided confronting the market-driven "school choice" competition that caters to wealthy professionals looking for free but segregated schools, and he's gotten the UFT and other city unions to sign concessionary contracts.

De Blasio has also been hostile to the opt-out movement, imposing a gag order to prevent teachers from giving parents their opinion of the tests--an obvious restriction on workplace rights that the UFT has refused to challenge.

Oh, and de Blasio played a key role four years ago in pushing the WFP to back Cuomo.

Now that the WFP has endorsed Cynthia Nixon, she has a potential ballot line to run against Cuomo in November in the likely event that she loses the Democratic primary. But the WFP's Lipton has already declared that that's not going to happen. "We will not be a spoiler," the state director told reporters. "In 20 years, we have never been a spoiler."

In other words, don't count on Lipton to break the abusive cycle in which Cuomo kicks down at the unions, who kick down at the WFP, who then kick down at grassroots activists backing the Green Party campaign of Howie Hawkins and Jia Lee, the latter a New York City teacher and opt-out activist.

How unrealistic to back a third party campaign, the argument will go, at a time when Cuomo and the unions won't even tolerate a primary challenge inside the Democrats.

THERE ARE many teachers like Jia Lee, a member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators caucus inside the UFT, who disagree with the concessionary strategy of their union's leadership. They face the challenge of organizing to bring the spirit of the red-state rebellion into the bluest of cities.

The idea that the crisis of teacher salaries and school funding only exists in Republican-led states is a misnomer--one that American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was only too happy to perpetuate in an article written with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg about how well paid New York City teachers are.

In truth, the median salary for a New York City teacher is $66,000. That's a lot more than the $45,000 average in West Virginia, until you factor in the cost of living in New York City, which is more than twice as expensive as the West Virginia capital.

Similarly, the crumbling schools and impoverished communities that finally received public attention when teachers went on strike in West Virginia and Oklahoma have their match in New York City public schools where the water supply has dangerous levels of lead and one in 10 students were homeless during the last school year.

The actual conditions of New York City schools and teachers give the lie to the mantra that union officials here keep repeating to their members about the red-state teachers strikes: That's great, but we don't need that here because we have supportive leaders like Andrew Cuomo.

In fact, this city is long overdue for a blue state rebellion--in the voting booth, but more importantly on the picket lines.

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