Time for the UFT to learn from LA teachers

February 1, 2019

New York City teacher John Yanno explains why his union, the United Federation of Teachers, should be learning the lessons of the Los Angeles strike — but isn’t.

EDUCATORS ACROSS the country watched in awe as teachers in Los Angeles, with the support from the vast majority of their community, went out on strike for the schools students and teachers deserve. United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) showed us that when we stand up and fight, we can win.

But if striking teachers in Los Angeles, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and Washington have been showing us how to stand up and fight, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the union representing New York City teachers, has taken an opposite approach.

Take, for example, its approach to contract negotiations. This school year, city occupational therapists (OTs) and physical therapists (PTs) angrily rejected a contract that lacked important protections and pay parity. But at a previous Delegate Assembly called to approve the contracts to go to a full-membership vote, UFT President Michael Mulgrew defended the OT/PT contract.

When asked why the union wasn’t fighting for more pay for OT/PTs, whose salaries lag thousands of dollars behind other union bargaining units, Mulgrew responded that a pay raise wasn’t something the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE) was interested in.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew speaks as Mayor Bill de Blasio looks on
UFT President Michael Mulgrew speaks as Mayor Bill de Blasio looks on (flickr)

In other words, rather than standing up for one of the most exploited bargaining units, the union retreated because the NYC DOE wasn’t “interested” in negotiating.

ONE OF the many lessons we learned from teachers this year in Los Angeles and in 2012 in Chicago is that in order to win a strike, teachers must have the backing of the community, especially the parents.

In 2012, when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to pit parents against striking teachers, an overwhelming number of parents rejected the mayor’s divide-and-conquer strategy and sided with educators. Likewise, while the Los Angeles Unified School District tried to claim that striking teachers were putting students at risk, more than 80 percent of LA county residents sided with the teachers.

This support didn’t happen by accident. In both cities, strike preparation included reaching out to communities and linking their demands with those of the union.

In cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, where the majority of public school students are people of color, this means fighting racism. Unfortunately, the UFT leadership took the opposite course of action when, for the second year in a row, it rejected supporting the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action.

Last year, the UFT stood alone in rejecting the week of action among the union locals in the 10 cities where it was proposed. This year, the National Education Association endorsed the week of action at the national level — but not the UFT.

In December 2018, perhaps to sabotage anti-racist activists’ efforts to pressure the union for an endorsement of the week of action, the UFT passed a resolution giving general support for organizations they say are fighting for racial and economic justice.

This included several civil rights organizations like the NAACP and Black Lives Matter, but also included the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL, in spite of calling itself an anti-racist organization, is a staunch defender of Israel, regularly conflates opposition to Israel with anti-Semitism, and sponsors police exchanges where U.S. police, ICE, Border Patrol and the FBI go to Israel for training.

The resolution in the UFT, which lacked specific steps to combat racism in the nation’s most segregated school system, was cynically used by President Mulgrew at the January Delegate Assembly to rule “out of order” the motion to support the Black Lives Matter at Schools Week of Action.

The reasoning was that because the UFT already gave general support to a host of groups fighting for racial justice, supporting specific actions by those groups was redundant, and therefore out of order.

THIS IS one of many examples of how the UFT leadership has not only resisted progressive and anti-racist initiatives, but actively worked against them, even where public education is directly concerned.

For example, earlier this month, the UFT sent text messages to its members encouraging them to support legislation in Albany that would keep standardized testing part of how classroom teachers are evaluated — rather than supporting the parents and teachers of the opt-out movement, who urged their representatives to vote no.

The problem with the UFT lies in its service model of unionism. As Peter Lamphere wrote in Socialist Worker:

The UFT’s model of service unionism encourages members to see the union as a passive provider of services, like vision and dental benefits, rather than an organization of workers that depends on their active involvement...The leadership has been increasingly unwilling, and unable, to mobilize large sections of membership.

This is the exact opposite strategy to the one that led to important gains in Los Angeles this month, as well as the “red state” rebellion last year and the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike.

New York City teachers who want a more militant, rank-and-file strategy have organized into the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) caucus.

Like the Union Power caucus in Los Angeles and the Caucus of Rank and File Educators in Chicago, two rank-and-file caucuses that won leadership of their unions, MORE sees its members as the ultimate source of union power. It is committed to rank-and-file unionism going hand in hand with social justice unionism — and to the belief that our students’ learning conditions are our working conditions.

MORE members are currently gearing up to challenge the Unity caucus for leadership of the union in upcoming elections. Despite the example of Los Angeles and Chicago, teachers in New York face an uphill battle against an entrenched leadership with an iron grip on the union since it came to power in 1962.

But if the teachers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington and last year’s red state strikes have taught us anything, it’s that you have to stand up and fight back if you want to win. That has to start now.

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