Sunday, November 7, 2010

Message from the Trenches: A Little Bit of Personal History on School Organizing - Part I

Last revised Sunday, Nov. 7, 7PM

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it," or any version of the Santayana quote you like:

The word is out: with Unity Caucus controlling 3/4 of the schools in NYC, you can't build a force within the UFT unless you can organize at the school level. Duh! I've been trying to do that since 1970. And obviously have failed. I wish the pundits had dropped me a line to tell me what I was doing wrong.

What I try to tell my colleagues today is that each school community is unique and there are no blueprints you can use to define a theory of school level organizing.

I thought if I put out a bit of history someone out there might see the flaws, correct them and do it right this time. This is far from close to being comprehensive - there is enough material for a book. A very long book. I'm going to do this in 2 parts. Part 1 is based on my school experiences from 1970-1997 and part 2 on the founding of Ed Notes, ICE and GEM from 1997-today.

Part I: 1970's-1997

The 1970's
I became an activist in the union and in the community early in my 4th year of teaching. I was working in Williamsburg in District 14. I'll spare you all the details but one overriding fact was that a UFT chapter leader won the election for District rep around 1970 and became the major political power broker in the district, even hand-picking superintendents, principals, AP's and controlling a massive patronage machine. Want to be a teacher? school secretary? para? aide? A job was available if you played ball politically.

Some people tell me about fear in the schools today. But you should have seen how afraid people were then to buck this machine, which remained dominant through the death of the District Rep in the 90's - he had made himself Superintendent by then - and in fact elements of that 40 year old machine still operate today and control a number of schools. (So much for BloomKlein's dismantling of the old system.)

District organizing
In the fall of 1970 I was regularly appointed and in a new school and heard of a group of teachers based in a nearby middle school called Another View in District 14. We put out a newsletter that dealt with citywide and local educational issues and even touched on national issues (like tracking) almost every month and tried to get it into other schools. We attended school board meetings and challenged the local power structure while also building links to community activists. You know, we had just come out of the 60's. We were doing both school-wide and district organizing and attracted a following, but also a lot of enmity. Sixties type radicals in a very conservative district dominated by north Williamsburg/Greenpoint with only about 5% of the kids in the district, mostly white while the rest of the under represented district was Black and Latino.

UFT Chapter organizing
We also became active in our school UFT chapters, which were almost all run by Unity Caucus members or sympathizers. The District Rep made sure the chapter leadership was a conduit to eventually becoming a supervisor and at one point I believe most of the principals on the district were former CLs.

They were not exactly friendly to our organizing efforts over the rest of the 70's and one by one our people left the district or were nudged out until there were only two of us left - Loretta Prisco was the other one and she was moved around like a chess piece until she had a baby and left too.

Another View goes citywide
Eventually, Another View met up with people from other districts through various actions and we became a city-wide group called the Coalition of NYC School Workers, reaching the height of activity in the 1975 UFT strike over the massive budget cuts and 15,000 layoffs. We were very active at the Delegate Assembly and ran in UFT elections in various coalitions with other groups (Teachers Action Caucus and New Directions who eventually merged to form the current New Action) through the 80's.

Battling at the school, level and citywide levels
No one in the schools wanted to be a delegate- until one of us ran. I had some fierce election battles with some people telling me - "I personally want you to be at the Delegate Assembly but if you lose I can tell Mario (the district rep) that I voted against you and that might help me be an AP one day." I always won but sometimes it was close. At least in my school the admins in the 70's were not part of the machine and on my side - which didn't help their careers and in some cases actually killed their chances of becoming principal.

What I learned over the years was that Mario, though in Unity Caucus, was considered a rogue by the central union because he used to tell them to go fuck themselves - he even said that to Sandy Feldman I heard. (In later years he and I would find some peace and used to have laughs over the "wars." Believe me, there's a major book in Mario stories but most of his crew are dead, including Ken Shrednick one of my good friends who died last March, or won't talk.)

The District "Makes" my new principal
There were always hints that there were certain, let's say "influences" in the district. It was no accident that when someone became a principal they were referred to as "made" as they went out to celebrate at a well-known "connected" restaurant, whose owner actually was "elected" to the school board.  Really, it was like working in the middle of a novel.

Things changed for me when the District machine forced the old principal and AP out and put in their own, a fairly young woman with little teaching experience who was "connected" though her hubbie. (One time on a Saturday night we were eating out at a restaurant when she walked in accompanied by 15 men - she was the only female - an Irishwoman in a sea of Italian men.) Can you say: Leadership Academy early prototype?

That was in late 1978 and now I was faced with a hostile admin for the first time and the wars began. I won't go into details now but we fought on and off for 20 years. My friends used to tell me I should start my car by remote control.

The new principal
Let me say this one thing - the daughter of a fireman, she never tried to take someone's job. But she knew how to exercise the power of a principal - not by force as much as using her political power. She was a political animal and active in Democratic Party politics in Queens.

She instituted a high stakes testing program with test prep all the time (which drove me out of the self-contained classroom in 1985) and really was innovative in terms of a Joel Klein type mentality. There is no little irony that she was forced out by Kleinites in 2003.

After I left the school in 1997 we actually became sort of pals - she once called Randi Weingarten a whore for selling out the UFT members because she (the principal) had a theoretical pro union sensitivity though not when faced with reality in the school. She used to slip me $20 for Ed Notes. In retrospect, she was an amazing woman who pushed her way into a strictly defined "man only" world in District 14 - they used to laugh at her but she was brazen and fearless. I didn't realize 'till later that she tapped into the mostly women staff feminist identity and some of them attributed anti-fem motives to  men like me who were opposed to her.

And one more thing- no matter what happened in the classroom, she backed the teacher all the way, even when sometime she shouldn't have. But on the negative side she as no educator and we had the same kind of test-driven distorted curriculum you see today.

The CL was a Unity guy light and he fought her too - until she chopped his music program in the early 80's and threw him back in the classroom. He stopped fighting.

The 1980's
I basically missed the 80's as an activist. Bought a house in 1979 and fixing it up became a preoccupation and then went back go school for an MA in computer science starting in '83 and didn't really emerge from that process until the late 80's - with 2 years off mixed in for study.

The 1990's
By 1994 it was clear that there was practically no union functioning in the school. The Unity chapter leader at times tried to fight the principal but he had become a part-time CL and even though we had a bunch of people who wouldn't take any crap I felt there was a need for a strong chapter to stand up to the principal so individuals who wanted to fight for their rights would have strong backing. So with much trepidation I took on the job of chapter leader for the 1994-95 school year with the primary aim of organizing an effective chapter.

It is not enough to say the principal wasn't pleased. She was horrified. She had not been paying attention to the election in June 1994 as she was busy manipulating the PTA election and in fact there wasn't even an election since the Unity guy withdrew when I accepted the nomination. She went nuts, even sending the AP around to gather signatures from UFT members calling for a new election. That over 20 of my colleagues signed the petition was a sign I had a hell of a lot of organizing to do. The election committee duly certified the election and we went off for the summer.

[Section newly added]
[I didn't walk into the position cold but had spent some serious time thinking about how a UFT chapter should be run. One error was not gathering a group of supporters around me in advance. My decision to actually run came just as time was running out. Frankly, I was scared to death to take on this responsibility so I never did poll people. That left me weakened for the initial attacks that came but on the other hand it didn't give the principal a chance to organize against me. ]

Nuts and bolts of chapter organizing
Of course the wars began as soon as we came back in September 1994 and she refused to speak to me for that entire month - until I sent her a message that unless she held a consultation meeting as required by the contract I would file a grievance.

Up to that point these meetings if they took place at all were between the principal and chapter leaders.
I codified these meetings and invited the entire staff to attend at least one a year. I had a sort of cabinet - an exec bd with reps from all areas of the school. I really worked to get some of the younger teachers involved. The 2 most responsive were pals and the principal purposely split them up by giving them different lunch hours. But in one of those twists, a kindergarten teacher left and she had to move one of them back to K and the 2 of them ended up as next door neighbors. What guts these young ladies had.

Chapter meetings and the newsletter
The key instruments of organizing my chapter were: establishing as democratic an institution as possible by giving the most voice to as many people as feasible, the newsletter and focusing on holding productive UFT meetings, which I moved from a split lunch period to a regular once a month on a Friday before school. I got food paid for from my chapter leader stipend and the meetings became breakfast and were well-attended.

We issued DA and District and Consultation meeting reports in advance of the meetings and used the meetings to talk mostly about in-school matters. The old CL used to give long-winded reports and brought in UFT officials as guests. I refused to let the UFT send a guest to these meetings (until the district rep insisted he had to come to debate me on the 1995 contract, which in the first vote was rejected.) For important pension or safety issues I invited UFT people to come for the double lunch hour devoted solely to that issue. Thus, the important chapter meetings were left to us to debate important points.

I added a treasurer who kept strict books. (We arranged for a soda machine which the chapter controlled and used the profits to buy an air conditioner for the teachers room.)

The newsletter became a major instrument. I reported on everything (I had a little Apple laptop and was the only CL in the union to be using it at the time). The consultation meetings was "ours" - the chapter -  with our agendas though I would ask the principal if there was anything she wanted on the agenda. Though she hated them she also got to like the give and take as we went back and forth in front of an audience - we were both performers. I reported on these meetings to the chapter. Once when I asked for paras to be relieved from lunch duty, she said, "fuck the paras." I told her I would leave that out of  the minutes - and she owed me one. The people watching almost fell over with stifled laughter.

Every meeting was advertised numerous times - stuffed boxes and attached to bathroom doors and near the office. Constant reminders to busy people who often forgot. I felt that getting as many of them in one place once a month was a key organizing tool and hitting them with as much info as they could take would keep them informed between meetings.

I won't go into any more details other than to say that I put in an intense 3 years focused on building a democratic chapter that involved as many people as possible. I have to say that if I were not a cluster teacher but still in a self-contained class, this would have been an impossible job. While I developed tremendous skills in being chapter leader, my teaching suffered in many ways. But as a computer teacher I had some options that other teachers don't have. (More about this some other time.)

Working with parents
I didn't just focus on the chapter, I also used the fact that in my 25 years in the school I had built up an excellent relationship with many parents. The PTA presidents were always friendly but were in the pocket of the principal (relatives became aides and paras and their kids were always in the top class). I don't blame them. But many other parents on the PTA exec bd were openly in support of me because they hated the principal. At one graduation they secretly chipped in and bought me a plaque and had it presented to me without telling the principal at graduation ceremonies while she stood there and seethed. It is still one of my proudest possessions.

When the election came up in 1996 (there were 2 year terms) she barely put up a fight and I was re-elected overwhelmingly or ran unopposed (can't remember). In the 96-97 school year I put out out almost 50 newsletters and used them to control the debate in the school.

I went to monthly chapter leader meetings and though the district rep tried to control me, some of what I was doing began to infect some other chapter leaders. My principal friends told me my principal would go to district meetings and say she had the chapter leader from hell. An honor, of sorts. But a few other principals were complaining I was having a "bad" influence on their own CLs.

Then I took a sabbatical in 97-98. I asked 2 people to become co-chairs in my absence, though I continued to attend DAs. The Principal's lackeys were calling for an election but the procedure is to appoint a temp until you come back and I intended to run again in 98. I was very involved in the early fall but the principal used my absence to dismantle my computer program which I had spent 8 years building. I had had enough.

A district job
I was offered a district job computer job to begin in the fall of 98, which I always maintained was a way to keep me from challenging the District Rep in the next election or to cut my influence with other CLs. By bringing me inside the tent it was easy to control me. Expecting to retire in 2 years (I actually worked 4) it wasn't a difficult choice to make.

I saw almost all of my school organizing efforts end the minute I left.

I won a lot of battles but the principal won the war.

I tried to do too much myself. Not enough people were involved to make it sustainable when I left. It also takes a stable faculty and a longer period of time.

When my new boss stopped by the school to tell her the news that he was hiring, my principal said, "My car was stolen today but this makes up for it."

Ironically, I continued to cover my school out of the district over the next 4 years. I would get a big hug from her every time I came with invitations into her office to chat about district gossip. I think we were both relieved.

The issues
Since I posted this I was asked what were the issues. I had my agenda and other people in the school had theirs and I tried to represent as many of the points of view as possible. I was interested in how the principal was wasting enormous sums of money on test practice and how she was spending the budget generally and trying to get her to comply with the contract wherever she was going around it.

Coming soon Part 2: 1997-2010
How the chapter leadership brought me back to central union issues, the chapter newsletter evolved into Delegate Assembly Notes and then Education Notes, trying to work with Unity, then becoming a critic and organizing a new opposition group and more.


Michael Dunn said...

This is a very instructive story that organizers and unions activists everywhere should heed (of course, many of us have had similar experiences).

the comment "Fuck the paras" unfortunately is heard far too often, even among teachers, who often see themselves as the stars of the show. Those of us hear this sort of nonsense should see it as a sign that some serious organizing and education on solidarity needs to be done.

I was inspired by the creative use and structure of meetings. However, I believe the most powerful organizing tool available is one-on-one relational organizing. Super time-consuming. Requires 8-12 trained organizers per site.

Anonymous said...

WHY DO YOU say nobody will talk?
Randi cut Jack Scheirenback's legs off after she promised him he could write about Ocean Hill- Brownsville (she was busy giving Sharpton $50,000 a year).
Jack got so disgusted and angry that he had a stroke and she never kept his column going.
And the guy they just fired- he must have hundreds of stories about the financial scams going on with our money and all the dead wood at the union and the cover -ups after the Unity boys were caught stealing and the lawsuits that were settled for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He will probably talk -or write his own book- unless Mulgrew does a Fredo on him.

Anonymous said...

Vote Norm for Secretary of Education no matter who's in the white house!!!