Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thoughts on Teacher Unions and the Roots of Activism

So today Michael Fiorillo and me are doing a short history of teacher unions in NYC. I have been putting together some notes on pre and post 1968 events. The outlines total 6 pages. I was going to publish them here today but I thought it best to get some feedback tonight and modify them before publishing. Here is a draft of a diagram I made -- and I'm sure groups are being left out and we will update it.

I based a lot of the post-68 stuff on my own memory so some of it is iffy -- and admittedly prejudiced by my views --- history is what I say it is does not work for me so I hope to do lots of follow-up, including some video interview with key people. (I'm so sorry I didn't get to Paul Baizerman who died last December.)

Peter Pamphere sent some suggestions from Viet Nam where he is spending 3 months.

To help folks prepare for the discussion this coming Thursday on the UFT Past and Present, I wanted to encourage people to read the pamphlet Teacher Power, by Steve Zeluck.  I found it really useful when preparing for the workshop on UFT history for the State of the Union conference (thanks Norm for posting the video!), and we did some very productive study groups around in GEM.  It was written in the '70s, but some of the critique of the union leadership reads like it could have been written yesterday, and provides what I think is a very useful analysis of why our union is the way it is.
You can download it from the link below...

Videos are here: presented by Michael Fiorillo and Peter Lamphere at the State of the Union conference (Feb. 4. 2012).

Michael: Teacher unions up to 1968 (22 minutes):

Peter: Post 1968 (15 minutes):

Both videos plus the Q&A (1 hour):

I moved the blurb below to the top of the sidebar:

History of the UFT Pre-Weingarten Years

This award-winning series of articles by Jack Schierenbeck originally appeared in the New York Teacher in 1996 and 1997 - naturally, from a certain point of view. But, despite certain biases, Schierenbeck, a great guy, was one of the best NY Teacher reporters so this is worth reading. Jack suffered a debilitating stroke many years ago (I used to get secret donations to ed notes from him through a 3rd source.)

This chapter looks interesting:

Class struggles: The UFT story, part 3

“The schism in the union over radical politics [is] a major reason for stalling the growth of a teacher union for decades.” Revolutionary politics and ideology take center stage, as the original Teachers Union becomes a battlefield, pitting leftist against leftist and splitting the union.
Clarence Taylor's "Reds at the Blackboard" focused on the old Teachers Union which disbanded in 1964 after suffering from anti-left attacks.

Of course for another view, check out the review of the Kahlenberg Bio on Shanker by Vera Pavone and me.

You can't talk about union history without discussing the role the left played and will continue to play. I will touch on this aspect tonight -- from the perspective of a non-activist, non-left 4th year teacher in 1970 who became an activist due to the influence of left wing activists.

I also want to post some thoughts on the current state of teacher unions from the assailed teacher who said he would come tonight and I'm sure will add interesting analysis.

In his piece here is a missing component that I hope the presentation tonight will touch on: the ideology driving our union leaders since the founding of the UFT and before. A key event took place on the mid-late 1930s when the forefathers of the UFT walked out of the Teachers Union as they were about to lose power to the left and formed the Teachers Guild which became a competing force and eventually organized the UFT over 20 years later. Why did they leave and why have they done everything possible to steer the union in a certain direction? Now not everyone agrees with the assessment that the Teachers Union was progressive and the Teachers Guild was not, given the substantial achievement of organizing the UFT into a potent force. Sometimes in the strife of the internal battles we forget that.

Here are a few excerpts from The Death and Birth of Teacher Unions

The destruction of teacher unions has been a major goal of education reform. It now seems that goal is coming true.

The most perplexing question I have about this situation was prompted by the statement Randi Weingarten made recently about instituting a sort of bar exam for teachers. At every turn, Randi has shown herself to be utterly beholden to the education reformers, the people whose goal is the destruction of the union she represents. The same thing goes for UFT president Michael Mulgrew, who sits on the board of New Visions, an organization that seeks to destroy public schools and build charters upon their carcasses.

Why are our union leaders collaborating with the people who are out to destroy our union?

It is an old question for sure. The strategy of our union leaders has been to collaborate on many points of education reform in order to prevent the image of a stodgy, mossback outfit with no interest in educational innovation from sticking. Yet, despite these efforts (their efforts at collaboration, that is), the image still sticks.

In 2005, when Randi was still the president of the UFT, she agreed to a contract with Pharaoh Bloomberg that gave most of our rights away. Her defenders said that this was the best deal that could have been worked out at the time. The winds were blowing in the direction of ed reform and Randi was shrewd to co-opt some of that wind in order to get something for the teachers she represented. After all, it was better to sway with the wind than to stand against it and get blown over.

And yes, even I subscribed to this notion when that contract was first negotiated.

Seven years later and the statistics have made it apparent: teachers unions are literally dying.
Why did the unions do all of this collaborating if, in the end, they were going to die anyway? The whole point of swaying with the wind was to prevent getting blown over by those winds. Yet, we swayed and got blown over anyway.

It does not make any sense to me.

Despite her efforts, she is still perceived as a shrill union hack. The fact that the union she represents is dying (and I am assuming that the statistics about the NEA’s dwindling membership is analogous to what is happening to the AFT) certainly does not recommend her in any way as a competent public administrator. All of this collaboration just so her union and her career can die in the end anyway.

It is maddening. And the question in my mind still stands as to why.

The next teacher union will be equal parts teacher and union. In that, it will be the next great movement.

Tonight we hope to explore the WHY.

Read in full: The Death and Birth of Teacher Unions


The opinions expressed on EdNotesOnline are solely those of Norm Scott and are not to be taken as official positions (though Unity Caucus/New Action slugs will try to paint them that way) of any of the groups or organizations Norm works with: ICE, GEM, MORE, Change the Stakes, NYCORE, FIRST Lego League NYC, Rockaway Theatre Co., Active Aging, The Wave, Aliens on Earth, etc.


  1. Here is a bit more history.

    In 1970 and for a few years on either side of that date, until a lawsuit, many of us were hired as "per diem subs" by the NYC BOE...the term for ATR's back then. We were paid on a per diem basis with NO benefits and we had full time positions.

    Then we young ones, the best and brightest of our generation, were treated like crap by both the BOE and the UFT who protected the vets at our expense. For years our salary schedule at the lower end of the ladder was sacrificed for higher increases at the top. Yet, we were laid off in 75-76. Most did not return. Need you ask why?

    Those of us who did were in it for the long haul...until the next obstacle...falling behind the suburbs in working conditions, salary, and benefits.

    Some of those same people are now being forced into ATR positions as they are ready to leave their chosen profession of 40 years. My remaining colleagues from the early 70s are still sacrificial lambs. Where is the UFT on this?

    Now people on either end of the seniority stick are being hammered. That is worse than it was then. Will we ever learn?

  2. i couldn't get a job as a young teacher in '76 when I finished graduates school. I couldn't get a job in '73 when I received my undergraduate degree and NYC license. Shanker used to come to the college to encourage us to continue in the education program and talked about how glorious the UFT was. I have to say he made it sound good. I wish I knew then what had gone on and was going on going on within the union. Teachers (many who were friends and a year or two older than I were being laid off). I was kept on a rank order list at the BOE for over 10 years as long as I documented that I was teaching somewhere (I was in day care and head start). In 1984 the BOE called my list and said that they were not going to extend it any longer. Many of us scurried to get jobs. One day I will have to explain how I landed first in D 17 and finally was able to get into D 14 where I grew up, went to school and lived. I was fortunate to secure a position at the school I am currently at. After receiving that position the BOE sent us notices that it was in fact extending the lists again. Some of my friends did go back into the system and worked for 30 years. Some had to fight to get their Tier I status given back to them with very little help from the union. I am very grateful to have gotten into the public school system. I am also grateful that I met Norm's publication of EdNotes and finally met him. Because of him and a local community activist, Mildred Tudy Johnston, I became interested in education activism. Thank you for all the work you, Norm, and others are doing to educate me(who is considered an old timer now, LOL) and all the newer teachers about our union history. When I read the paper Peter sent all you have to do is take out Shanker's name and fill in Weingarten/Mulgrew and we have the same situation perpetuating itself in the UFT at present. I look forward to the education I will receive tonight.



Comments are welcome. Irrelevant and abusive comments will be deleted, as will all commercial links. Comment moderation is on, so if your comment does not appear it is because I have not been at my computer (I do not do cell phone moderating).