Thursday, August 9, 2012

John Elfrank-Dana Boils the Union Frog After SOS12 Experience

LAST UPDATED FRIDAY, AUG. 10, 12PM

Our teacher union members in NYC are like frogs in the pot on the stove with the flame on low. Union concessions on core rights constitute the rising water temperature in our frog pot. As we become aware of the situation ... that maybe we should consider jumping out (strike?) to save our selves (at least begin to prepare for one).
I had the audacity to suggest this weekend at the SOS convention that SOS exists mainly because of the failure of our teacher unions to protect the profession and quality public education. It was dismissed forthwith by the union committee there without any exploration,,, John Elfrank-Dana, Labor's Lessons
How can we move forward if we don't study the successes and failures of the past? Our problem is that the UFT/AFT leadership will not accept that they made ANY mistakes. As long as they distort history we will continue to sit in the boiling water. ---- Ed Notes

John, who worked with ICE and now with MORE, posted an excellent analysis at his Labor's Lessons blog about the state of the unions.
Jump in or jump off - whither the UFT

Does the fundamental lack of resistance of the teacher unions (until Chicago) make them bear ANY responsibility for the spread of ed deform? Not only lack of resistance but actual support for so much of the ed deform agenda, from supporting the closing of schools to opening up co-located charters here in NYC (oh, I can go on and on). So at the SOS conference I was wondering if this might come up, given the stark contrast between the actions in Chicago and so much of the rest of the nation, as one teacher union after another has compromised itself to the point of extinction. John's frog parable is oh so apt.

John is chapter leader at Murry Bergtraum HS, the last remaining big high school in Manhattan (and prime location real estate for future charters/condos) and his school has faced all the flack coming out of ed deform, including the imposition of "bonus baby" principals and now probably a new principal who will be a closer (Death Watch for Murry Bergtraum). He has also faced personal retaliation aimed at his family from a vindictive principal. So when John talks about the parable of the frog, the temperature in his pot is a few degrees higher.

I had to leave SOS early Sunday morning so didn't get to stay for the Labor and Professional Organizations Principle Writing Workshop as a follow-up to the labor session the day before (see full video here). John stayed for a while and reported support for the Chicago TU. But when he tried to raise the issue of the role unions have played he didn't get any traction. How can we move forward if we don't study the successes and failures of the past? Our problem is that the UFT/AFT leadership will not accept that they made ANY mistakes. As long as they distort history we will continue to sit in the boiling water.

I wouldn't expect, or want, SOS to in any formal way be critical of the actions of the AFT/UFT/NEA but I would hope the leaders would at least be willing to discuss the issue informally as a warning signal that going down the road to appeasement is dangerous. The teachers in Chicago were the frog in the boiling water under the old leadership for so long until about 2 years ago when CORE was elected and began a strategy of fierce resistance. That those beaten and demoralized teachers would vote 98% for a strike just 2 years into the leadership of CORE is a remarkable example of political leadership, something I truly believe we can never expect from the Unity Caucus which sets up charter schools that are co-located in public schools, agrees to being rated on value added etc.

While I agree with John that the ability to strike is what makes the ability of unions to fight for its members credible I also think there are steps in between.

John quotes Leo Casey,"If you draw a line in the sand you'd better be prepared to defend that ground to avoid a routing that could destroy you." And we both agree that Leo is right. But where do you draw a line in the sand? Has the UFT been willing to draw any lines in the sand? For instance, if it had refused to agree to ending seniority rights in the 2005 contract what would have been the result?
CORRECTION: I want to expand on the point Fred Klonsky below was making since some people are not aware of the background. Fred castgates unions leaders taking gas but trying to sell it as a victory instead of saying we were forced to take gas.
In retrospect I realize Fred was talking more about the Illinois state union which jumped on board SB7 -- the bill pushed through by Jonah Edelman's Stand for on Children  -- remember that video (Jonah Edelman Caught With His Pants Down that took away many of the bargaining rights but did give them the right to strike if they could get 75% of the membership to vote for it.  
Here is a video of Leo's statement and a response from Fred Klonsky who is critical of the current Chicago Illinois leadership (and maybe CTU too for initially signing on to SR7 SB7. As Xian Barrett points out, the internal democratic process in CORE and the CTU created a reaction that led to the CTU resistance.

Fred's critique can also be applied to so many aspects of AFT/UFT policy. On the surface I can agree with the "line in the sand" comment. But when Leo says "we can talk about what that line should be" I fault him for not allowing us in NYC to talk about that through the lack of democracy. If in fact we had open discussions about the implications of the 2005 contract or whether the UFT should open charter schools or support the closing of schools until late 2009 or support merit pay schemes, etc, etc, etc. we might be in a different place.

As you watch the video consider what the UFT would do if faced with the exact same demands the CTU are facing. Would Leo draw this line in the sand? Would/could the UFT get even a 50% strike authorization under the same conditions (take into account we have no right to strike while the CTU does even under severe restrictions -- did you know that Rahm got a law passed that forces the CTU to get individual permits for each school they want to picket at?)



I will put up a separate post comparing NYC and Chicago uaing Xian Barrett's wonderful presentation (also see Xian's article as posted on Gotham (An acclaimed Chicago teacher explains why extending the school day isn’t the solution (CNN)), which while militant also is conciliatory and looking for areas of compromise, things I feel I(we) can learn about how to work with others, even those you disagree with. Yes, even Leo at times. I feel the fact that we can have a reasonably cordial relationship is a positive thing. And the parting words I had with Mike Klonsky was that I do listen to criticism about my take no prisoners approach to the union and he said we would continue to have a dialogue.

Back to John's piece. Before the very idea of a strike enters anyone's mind a union must put up fierce resistance on many ed deform issues rather than trying to go half way. Having your union leadership back peddle and sell ed deform ideas (like we are afraid of being charged with unwillingness to be held accountable while I say "fuck your accountability that falls only on teachers and we won't budge until you hold yourselves to the same accountability) saps the spirit to such an extent that the very idea of a strike becomes a farce. Certainly here in NYC where even as the most severe attacks on teachers may be yet to come, it is hard to imagine the same willingness to resist outside of courts exists in the DNA of the UFT leadership.

The Parable of the Frog and the Fate of the Teacher Unions

All of this pondering of the demise of public education and teacher unions at the Save our Schools Convention (SOS) reminds me of the parable of the frog in a pot of water. It goes that if you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out to save itself. However, take that same frog and put it in room temperature water, but put the flame on low and it will be dead before it realizes the gradual change in temperature. More on this down below.

At the SOS Convention this weekend a stark warning from an recent former United Federation  of Teachers (UFT) executive now working at the American Federation of Teachers national office came to the delegates in the Teacher Unions committee- "If you draw a line in the sand you'd better be prepared to defend that ground to avoid a routing that could destroy you." In other words, a union had better be prepared to strike as a last resort and win that strike. That message is a prudent one; common sense taken at face value. But, to take it as sufficient reason to accept more concessions by the AFT in teacher evaluations based on test scores and giving back tenure is mistaken in my estimation.

Since, in my opinion, the UFT is nowhere close to being prepared to strike, the message my members (I am a chapter leader of one of the last large high schools in New York City), accept these concessions or face doom. A more cynical view has been that the UFT uses the threat of a strike and certain doom to scare members into accepting contract givebacks. I have seen this myself, when union brass visited our high school around the last two contracts- saying you'd better accept this or else! Since the leadership does nothing to prepare us for a strike, the threat works, "give up grieving a letter in the file, no seniority transfer? or else strike? Where do I sign?" That was the 2005 UFT contract, and along with UFT President Randi Weingarten support for Mayoral Control, that may have sealed our fate as a union.

Back to the frog parable: Our teacher union members in NYC are like frogs in the pot on the stove with the flame on low. Union concessions on core rights constitute the rising water temperature in our frog pot. As we become aware of the situation (we do have some capacity to be aware, unlike frogs) some of us stir that maybe we should consider jumping out (strike?) to save our selves (at least begin to prepare for one). Ah, but the union executive says, "If you jump out of this pot how do you know you won't fall all the way to the kitchen floor and go splat! Or, perhaps land of the flame of the burner next to this one?" He continues, "Hang in there! Our union president just negotiated a great victory. The DoE wants to turn the flame up another 10 degrees, but we got them down to an increase in only 5 degrees! (ironically working in the DoE's favor- for god forbid the other frogs wake up to what is happening)."

Without a credible threat of a strike, you have no union. All you have is a dues collection agency, a member benefits management office, an ombudsman's office of the DoE, a teacher public relations firm. To be clear it's a policy issue; most the staffers I find at the UFT offices are dedicated and willing to serve. But, you don't have a union without a strike. We can't rely only on court cases, or getting "our guy" in office to protect our rights. The ultimate weapon must be in the arsenal.

I don't take strikes lightly. I am aware of the Taylor Law penalties. I was a Teamster in college when I went out on strike the first time. I have been involved in two strikes and a lockout. I have seen people get their heads split open. Preparing for a strike requires digging in, years of building relations with the parents, polticos, press and most importantly your members. It's a capacity you have to have ready at all times.

I had the audacity to suggest this weekend at the SOS convention that SOS exists mainly because of the failure of our teacher unions to protect the profession and quality public education. It was dismissed forthwith by the union committee there without any exploration.

So, let's get behind our courageous brothers and sisters of the Chicago Teachers Union! They have built the credible threat of a strike. They can serve a model of courage and character for all of us. Those frogs have jumping legs! Take a close look at MORE and ICE in NYC for ideas about moving forward.
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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.

6 comments:

  1. I think the brother from Chicago, who responds to Leo Casey's opening remarks in this video, makes a very important point. Too often our unions spin mitigated loss into victory. I remember school bonus pay as a victory of direct teacher merit pay, now only 40 percent teacher eval based on test scores (even though NY State says teachers will be fired based on the 40 percent alone if they don't pass muster two years running). These are NOT victories.

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  2. If we strike in NYC they will simply lower the standards of what it takes to be a teacher and doctor the scores to show improvement. Parents will loose interest as long as their child's school is their to receive their child so they can go to work they will make do with lower standards. The functional parents will run to Charter school and further encourage the state to expand their numbers in order to brunt the possibility of future strikes, These are not normal times we have politicians fighting tooth and nail to give the richest one percent tax cuts and the average citizen so enraged at teachers and our largess that they would gladly cross the picket lines and pretend to do our jobs. I understand and agree the Union is slipping into obsolescence if they continue to play catch up to the reformers who for the most part are asking us to put our faith in unproven strategies and people who's only succes is in turning education into an assembly line system.
    We as a profession need to get parents back on our side and take the education agenda away from bean counters and corporate refuse in my opinion the Ed reformers are the set of people that when the corporate world downsized they were deemed expendable and since they are the epitome of those who cant even teach become Education executives we are stuck with their pabulum.

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    1. no one that I know of endorses a strike NOW. what I propose is that we move in a direction to be ready in two to three years. that will give us time to engage in a campaign to win parents' support (making class size reduction one of the core demands). otherwise, you subscribe to the slow death of the unions.

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  3. We in nyc are far from a strike but by working with parents and not just worrying about us in a narrow sense (bread and butter) we could reach a point where parents see a strike as being good for them and their kids.

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  4. Go down the list of people you deal with in a given day teaching. How many of them even seem to realize that we are under attack? It strikes me that there is something of a disconnect between far too many of our colleagues and the harsh realities that the reformers and their pols and money people are looking to inflict on us as a profession. You can't just hide in your classroom with your pretty calendars and word walls and hope the storm blows over. i know people who won't even comment on my blog anonymously for fear of being disciplined by City Hall. Maybe there was a time when we could disappear into our classrooms and re-appear at lunch and dismissal without a care in the world but those days are over. Two of our public schools are now in jeopardy of being picked off by the local charter hacks and teachers thank God were ready for them and showed up to defend their turf. The best part is the charteroids have ZERO buy in from anyone. Not the parents, not the district, the Board or the community. Nobody wants them and both schools are all ready involved with EPOs through local colleges but the charteroids didn't speak or communicate with them in either school. They just show up and say we're here to take over now...They are full of shit and it's our job as public school teachers to tell them to their bold faces publicly, You Are Full of Shit.

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    1. yes, we are in dire need of leadership. but the current union leadership wants to play well with others. well, you can't play well with someone who wants to destroy you. it's the folly of supporting mayoral control which the UFT still won't oppose.

      as a chapter leader i connect my members' daily agony with broader union/city policy so they see it could be otherwise. sure, there are those who, like the ostrich, think if they can stay under the radar everything will be ok. but, eventually many get burned and they come to you asking for help. that's the teachable moment.

      it takes years. and the UFT has neglected the real needs of our members for that past 12 years at least. we need a few years to bring us to a point where we can call ourselves a union again.

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