Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Shuffling the Deck on the UFT Titanic


"He won't last 6 months." Thus spoke an observer upon hearing Jeff Zahler was replacing the affable and capable Michael Mendel as the UFT's Staff Director at the end of the last school year. "He doesn't have the temperament for the job," she said.

And so it has come to pass, as Zahler, noted for his red-baiting attack on Kit Wainer during the 2007 election campaign amongst other lovable things about him, will be leaving the post next week, but will remain as the head of Unity Caucus. Oh, those deck chairs.

His replacement will be Manhattan District High School rep for small schools, Leroy Barr. Barr will be the 4th staff director since strongman Tom Pappas left the post a few years ago. Under Weingarten, the staff director position has lost some of its dominance as she is a hands on micromanager (or meddler to some) and there is not a clear chain of command with so many political appointments who can go right to Weingarten over the head of the staff director.

With her expected move to the AFT Presidency next July, Weingarten must firm up the home front just in case a serious opposition should emerge. The brilliant move of buying off the long-time opposition, New Action, can only last so long as their support in the schools dwindles to microscopic levels. (Is New Action Really a Caucus?)

The staff director has often been viewed as the 2nd in command – Sandra Feldman held that position before being elevated to UFT Presidency when Albert Shanker finally gave up the position after holding both AFT and UFT positions for 11 years. She appointed Pappas, who was considered by some a possible replacement for Feldman at one point. But Feldman and Shanker had their eye on Randi Weingarten as a better choice than the rough and tough Pappas, who has run the all-important Retirement Chapter since he gave up his post as staff director. At that time Weingarten handed the position to Queens Borough Rep Elizabeth Langiulli, which quickly turned into a disaster. Then came Mendel who seemed to be doing fairly well (he always seemed to be available) before he was kicked upstairs. Maybe he was too popular.

So, has Leroy Barr suddenly jumped into the race as a possible successor to Weingarten when she moves to take over the AFT this July? We think not, certainly at this time. The leading contenders to take over for Weingarten one day have been Elementary School VP Michelle Bodden (who is rumored for reassignment), the up and coming Vocational HS VP Michael Mulgrew and Mendel. None of these choices really work for Weingarten's purposes, though Bodden is considered the most "presidential."

Ed Notes' position has long been that Weingarten will hold on to the UFT Presidency as long as feasible, but to do so she needs to strengthen the home front to cover for her while she is traipsing around the country. The next election in 2010 will be the telling factor. If she planned on not running at that time one would think there would be a clear successor who could use the next 2 years to make himself/herself known to the members. Barr's appointment only further muddies the waters.

I remember Shanker running through a few successors - Herb Magidson was one around 1975 before he was kicked upstairs to NYSUT – before settling on Feldman, who some people thought would have a tough time filling Shanker's shoes, but in retrospect, managed fairly well. I find it interesting the number of people who tell me they miss her after dealing with Weingarten, which is surprising considering she was not Miss Warmth. But there was a certain "what you see is what you get" with the late Feldman that would be refreshing today. It is hard to imagine she would buy off New Action, especially with Shulman, whom she had no respect for as the leader. And with his old left background, Feldman's right wing Social Democrats USA (SDUSA) party ideals would curdle in her stomach.

Feldman also had a "teacher" mentality even though she did little teaching. But she trained as a teacher and was a socialist with a trade union background. (I was at the AFT convention in Washington in 2004 when she made her farewell speech and was very impressed as she focused on her activities in the civil rights struggles of the 50's and 60's.) Actually, despite the condescending arrogance that at times came from her and her inner circle, I sort of miss her too.

It was well known before Weingarten ever set foot in a school that she was the chosen one. She never taught and rose through the ranks but was a lawyer who was given a part-time teaching position while also working at the UFT so she could claim legitimacy as a teacher as Feldman's successor. Give both Shanker and Feldman credit in that they defined clear successors. Weingarten is too insecure to have her own Weingarten-like successor and this lack of talent near the top will have a long-time impact.

The UFT, the largest local in the world with almost 200,000 members, controls the NY State United Teachers which recently merged with the NEA in NY state (the idea of a national merger is on hold) and thus controls the AFT. That is why Weingarten is assured of being elected AFT Pres.

But there are serious dangers for Weingarten's power base if she turns the reins over to a powerful and ambitious successor as she was. Stories abound of friction between her and Feldman when the latter tried to tell her what to do. Weingarten quickly moved to replace Feldman/Shanker loyalists with her own people. What would stop a successor from doing the same no matter how much she felt she trusted that person? The reins of power are the reigns of power and we know how power can make people so light-headed they become blind.

Maybe Weingarten is trying to trisect – a troika, or quadrisect – a "quadrumvirate"- the leadership so no one person gets too much power or gets too popular with the rank and file.

Both Bodden and Barr are African-American. Weingarten has diversified the UFT Executive Board ethnically and racially, though certainly not politically, as all members, including the 8 New Action members who received the "gift" from Weingarten, adhere rigidly to the Unity line. Ed Notes has long maintained that a politically diversified EB not dominated by people on the UFT dole and that reflected the realities in the schools, would have a positive impact on the union.

Watch to see who emerges as a major spokesperson when Weingarten is not around. It will be very interesting if it does turn out to be Barr, who from my own limited contact seems a decent guy. In his performance as District Rep I've heard generally good things with a few minor complaints. Everyone in the union benefits with a responsive staff director. We wish him well in his new position.

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