Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pal'n Around With Bill Ayers - updated

UPDATED: Sunday, March 27, 7AM

Shhhhh! Don't tell Sarah Pallin who I was pal'n with. Well, not exactly pal'n. Ayers gave the keynote speech at the NYCORE conference today and I taped it. But in Sarah's world that's all it take to be pal'n.

Ayer's presentation along with artist Ryan Alexander-Tanner, was both political and pedagogical, pointing to new ways we should view the classroom and approach teaching. But rather than get deeper into it, I'll wait for the video to be ready - Ayers said it was OK to put it up.

I didn't get home until 8:30 and I left here at 7:15AM. But don't think it was all workshops and speeches. We all hit the local bar for a post-conference celebration of an exciting day. I mean hundreds of activists, some from all over the nation, but many NYC school teachers, often very, very young. There is some hope since so many of our newer brethren gave up a Saturday for this conference, which had the theme, "Whose Schools? Our Schools!" I've got a bag of tee-shirts I bought with the slogan on them and can't wait 'till summer to wear them around. I made sure to get one extra large since I am aiming to be the poster boy picture in the New Oxford American Dictionary which added the slang phrase "muffin top."

I attended a workshop run by Teachers Unite focusing on the union where a key topic was organizing at the school level. I got a kick when one teacher talked about her chapter leader who I know is one of the worst Unity slugs: pals around with one of the awful principals and can always be counted on to remove any material critical of Unity from teacher mailboxes. TU has a chapter building toolkit for helping people out.

In another workshop we showed about 15 minutes of our upcoming "Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman." The buzz was out there as many people seemed to know about it. I was approached by some pretty high level institutions that were interested and we gave out forms for people who want to hold house parties - you can even invite me over too - if you have food that will get me to my muffin top goal.

The final workshop I went to (there were scads of them) was a standing room only on slaying the 5-headed hydra - the monster of ed deform. I worked in a break-out session with one current NYC teacher and 3 student teachers. As we talked it became so clear that the attempt to destroy neighborhood community schools, particularly at the high school level where these schools barely exist, but also at all levels by the use of charter schools which draw from a wide area outside the neighborhood, is a major cause of the instability and we all strongly endorsed a strengthening of the neighborhood school concept - I think we will see this theme emerge in the coming debated over continuing mayoral control. Another issue raised by one young lady was her discomfort with being forced to sell going to college as the only way to success considering so many poor kids don't have the means to pay for it or their aptitudes or interest level seems low. But she didn't want to be accused of the crime of low expectations, where the penalty is death of your career (I know one teacher who spent 15 months in the rubber room for making a comment to someone that was interpreted as low expectations and reported to the principal.)

Everyone at so many workshops seemed to want to talk about the union response, or lack of, to the ed deform attack. Lots of frustration a-building it seems. The Unity leadership always seemed capable under Randi to race around putting out fires. But now are there so many fires to put out. And Mulgrew just does not that seem that interested (or paranoid as Randi was) - figuring that with 90% of the vote in the last election he has plenty of ice left to skate on.

I heard a superb analysis of why the UFT won't mobilize even in the face of Wisconsin like attacks from one very savvy participant. It goes like this:

In order to fight back UFT/Unity would have to mobilize membership. If they mobilize the membership the level of activity will rise to the point Unity control will be threatened. I chipped in with: The Prime Directive: maintain control. Not only for personal reasons of power and money. They have an ideology that works to motivate their actions.

The discussion got into that ideology a bit with a few points of view being put out there but that's too deep to drill in this post.

A point was made that by building a rank and file that will be activated (which Unity doesn't want to see happen because it is a threat) the leadership can be pushed into more action from below.  "Victories" were pointed to - minor victories- but they give hope.

I took a counter point. I don't want to waste any time or energy trying to convince the UFT hierarchy to do anything. I just don't have enough faith in the UFT leadership to trust that they have good intentions. My view is that whatever actions they are forced to take because of ferment from below are aimed to distract and misrepresent and divert militancy. They want total control and you can't build a movement based on total control that can only be held onto by killing the very democratic structures that are crucial to mobilizing the members.

Basically, I prefer to see the internal critics within not call on the UFT do anything. Instead, just build, baby, build. Build a rank and file movement from the school level up. Unity will try to kill the fires but if you build enough of them they won't know where to turn. Every time you go to the leadership they will tie you up and delay you. Not to say that we don't raise resolutions at the DA as a way to bring issues in front of the delegates that have an independent mind - even those in Unity.

One of the problems I found over the years I've been working with ICE is too much of a sense of talking to the head and not the body - too much time going to Exec Bd meetings where there is no one to convince. Too much time addressing issues to the leadership. I don't believe in writing letters to Mulgrew to make him do something.

If a serious R&F movement develops (as it did so quickly in Chicago) an enormous struggle will ensue over the very life of the union. I've said this before, but Unity/UFT/AFT would rather see the union go into massive decline than give up power. I mean, I've seen people scratch their heads over Randi's actions - "Why would she not fight when faced with a loss of so many members to charters?"

The answer: They prefer to rule a remnant of the union rather than see even a strong union in the hands of others- others which will always include some leftists whom the UFT hierarchy so despise and red bait all the time.

My fear is the upcoming generation of activists will underestimate the UFT/AFT leadership, which will fight dirty in every way possible while they as social justice activists will be honest and open about what they do. I say, "Be careful out there. Be very careful!"

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  1. Totally agree with your sentiments about UNITY. So what is the solution? How do you organize the R&F at the school level?

    When are union elections and is their an opposition candidate that we can get behind?

  2. Union elections are not about the candidate. They are about the organization and outreach in the schools. Who heard of Karen Lewis in Chicago until CORE caucus built a machine?
    The more important elections take place in the spring of 2012 - the chapter leader elections. Unity controls most schools through the relationship and dependence of the CLs with the District Reps. Randi knew what she was doing when she killed the DR elections in 2002.
    The regular UFT elections take place from Jan. -March 2013. There are no prospects on the horizon at this time. But at any rate, no matter who the candidate is, Unity has pre-rigged the election through a number of mechanisms, one of the key being the retiree vote where they get 90% of the vote. There are probably going to be 60,000 retirees and they vote in the highest numbers in the union.

    Until there are democratic changes in the union, the opposition will have little chance to win. A chicken and egg situation. But if there is a R&F uprising demanding changes - think Egypt - Unity may have no choice.
    In the meantime, if you want to org at the school level there is no formula. We'd have to do an analysis of your school situation and there would be a need to at least attend some meetings and workshops. Just reach me offline if you are interested.


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