Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions: The Awakening

by Norm Scott

Today is EduSolidarity Day. Many bloggers are posting on the theme "Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions." (Facebook link). Coming  home after working on my taxes I didn't feel all that solidarity-like, but then again I'm no tea party anti-go'ment/Walker supporter and am proud to pay my taxes ¬– so they can be turned over to millionaires and giant corporations instead of supporting education. Today is also "wear red solidarity day for Wisconsin." So to get in the mood, I'm wearing my red jammies with the dropseat flap and I'm raring to go. Read the other excellent posts at http://www.edusolidarity.org

I grew up in an ILGWU home but not with a great deal of union consciousness on the part of my parents. My mom got off the boat from Poland in 1920 at the age of 15 and went right to work as an operator. My dad, who was much younger, got a job at my mom's brother-in-law's factory in Brooklyn as a presser before leaving for higher paying job in the city. There was a strike in the early 50's and my dad came home wearing a "picket captain" armband and I remember being proud - my first consciousness about unions. Even though we never lived very high, my dad made a good enough salary with benefits that my mom didn't have to work after I was born - she had already put in 25 years. My 93-year-old dad still gets a modest pension and if he wanted to go into the city, has access to a union-sponsored health center.

Basically, other than studying about unions in high school and college, that is it for me in terms of unions – until my first day on the job as a teacher at PS 16 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in Sept. 1967 when all the talk is about a coming strike. As a fugitive from the draft with no intention of teaching for long and scared to death of facing a classroom of kids, I am thrilled. I have my deferment. I hope the strike lasts the entire year.

Out of 55,000 teachers, 44,000 go on strike in over 900 schools. The majority of the staff at PS 16 goes out and David Dicker, the principal, seems to be in support, so I join them. (I wonder what I would have done if the majority had gone in.) I show up every day for the next week and walk a picket line - very self-consciously. Some woman is in charge of organizing the picket line. She turns out to be the chapter leader. She gives me some stuff to fill out and "Voila" I'm a union member for the first time.

A year later comes the massive '68 strike. This time the entire school system is shut down – almost all the supervisors support the strike because they deem Ocean-Hill and community control as a major threat, as does the UFT – except for pockets of schools opened and staffed by mostly radical teachers. I know nothing about them and am barely conscious of the strike issues but I buy whatever I am told by the union.

Again, I am happy the school is closed. I spend an hour or two on the picket line and head off to play basketball. This goes on for weeks - on and off 3 times. At some point another teacher at my school tells me she has a job for me – a church has opened up a half-day program for 7-9th graders and needs teachers. I teach 3 classes of middle school social studies and take home a hundred dollars a week, $2 more than I was taking home from the Board of Education. This strike is turning into a dream. (Only later did I realize that I didn't have to walk past a picket line to be a scab.)

So, the strike ends eventually around Thanksgiving. I've been so adept at avoiding any responsibility for really teaching, I am still being used as a daily sub (believe it or not, I was an ATR). But I'm only going to teach the rest of the year and hopefully get a good draft number so I can go back to grad school and finish my MA in history and go on to a PhD and college teaching. Or to the Foreign Service where I have just gotten a great grade on an exam. The union is so irrelevant to me.

Coming back from Xmas vacation, a teacher of a horrible 4th grade class announces he is leaving at the end of January. He's a pretty lousy teacher who doesn't give a rat's ass for the kids - from an Ivy League law school on leave who actually scabbed the '68 strike - no radical he - not for moral reasons but because he says he would be breaking the law and was worried about his legal career. Many years later I would think of him whenever I see Joel Klein.

He's absent a lot and I cover his 4-8 class where most kids are reading at first-second grade level. And they are big for 4th graders - some are almost my size, particularly some of the girls. I am trying hard not to give a shit. I've learned enough to manage them but these are not pleasant days, especially since we are making up strike time with an extended day that goes from 8-3:15. Actually, I'm no longer as stressed as I was and can actually do this subbing thing. So much so I am getting bored.

After much angst, in an act of lunacy, I go to the new principal and offer to cover the class for the rest of the year and he says "yes (to the objections of the AP who thought of me as a total loser). I break into a cold sweat and a sinking feeling grows within me as I realize I have violated my golden rule - avoid being responsible for a class of kids under all costs. The sinking feeling doesn't go away until my last self-contained class - in 1985. (Just joking.)

I throw myself into the work with every ounce of energy I have, fall in love with the kids (and them with me), succeed far beyond my wildest imagination (even have that AP kvelling) and by June feel like the king of the world. I am hooked on the high - for a life sentence. Grad school be damned.

In year three I feel like a pro. Early on, I really miss my kids from the year before but I am rewarded with a 4-3 class and these kids are only a year or so behind and I have a real shot at moving them. And I do. I fall in love all over again and think about them every minute of the weekend and can't wait to get in on Monday mornings.

I get some visits from my kids from the year before who have gone onto 5th grade in a new middle school. Many are not doing too well and I begin to think that no matter how hard I work they will still get screwed - by what and by whom I am not so sure.

I start poking my head out of the sand during the last third of the school year (spring, 1970), noticing that the political appointee principal who took over for David Dicker, who I admired immensely as a principal, was a nice guy who liked me but couldn't manage a school. I begin to attend UFT chapter meetings for the first time. The union rep seems somewhat manipulative and inept and I actually entertain the thought of running for chapter leader. (Oh, the arrogance.) But I decide I want out of a school that seems going down the tubes.

Let's put the times in some sort of context. There is still a war going on. We've been though assassinations and massive demos and closings of colleges over the last few years. The school system is in the turmoil of the new decentralization law.

Marty Needelman, my best friend growing up has graduated from law school and gets a deferment by working for the urban Peace Corps as a lawyer. He has to work in a poverty community and live there. In the small world department - and probably what turns out life-changing for me - he is assigned to Williamsburg and he and other lawyers organize the community to take over the school board amongst other rad actions (he's still there as head of Williamsburg Legal Services). Marty invites me to a meeting and I meet a middle school teacher named Lew Friedman. He tells me he is part of a group of teachers at his school who support the community and tells me most of them broke the '68 strike. I'm a little shocked but tell him I will contact him in the fall of 1970.

I'm at a new school in the fall and getting acclimated and feel very strange. I may have made a mistake. I speak my mind and people are turned off by the new rad Norm. Marty tells me about a sit-in it the District Superintendent's office that has been going on for months. They are sleeping in - I go over there one night and meet Lew Friedman again. A few days later the principal calls me into his office - very intimidating and starts to talk about the sit-in. He clearly has been told about my visit to the sit-in. Yikes, I'm not tenured. I just don't react. Lucky he will retire in a few months and be replaced by the milquetoast AP who I will be able to intimidate. I can feel the power of the union.

I contact Lew and join the group based at IS 318 called "Another View in District 14." They meet once a week and talk about amazing stuff, including the union. They are rabid unionists but very critical of Albert Shanker and the UFT over the support for the Vietnam War, their position on community control, lack of democracy, etc. I come out of each meeting with my head ready to explode.

We all take May 1, 1971 off and do a demo in front of UFT HQ protesting the stance on the war. My first demo ever. (I'm still self-conscious.) We meet people from around the city through this action. I start bringing people I know from other schools to the meetings. We become a force (and threat) in the district to both the UFT/Unity Caucus crowd which controls so many schools and the people in power. We also are involved in the community, going to school board meetings. It turns out that the local UFT has taken control of the school board, which is almost all white in a district where 95% of the population is people of color. We work with and support the people who are fighting the UFT machine. I am getting more involved in the union every day but from a very different perspective. In the three plus years since I entered teaching somewhat timid and unconscious, I have turned into an activist and advocate.

And thus it begins. Forty years of deep involvement in the union. Fighting for a strong, democratic union based on rank and file activism. When the NEA comes calling in the early 70's trying to get us to start a beachhead of dual unionism in NYC, we let them take us out for an expensive meal and then send them packing. When the custodians go out on strike, I am the only teacher in my school who doesn't cross the picket line - my principal covers for me. And so does my AP when both the District Superintendent and UFT District Rep come calling to suggest he give me a U rating. In the 1975 strike when we have 13,000 layoffs, I stand outside Madison Square Garden with 20 others entreating people to vote down the settlement and hold Al Shanker to his promise, "We won't go back until we all go back." We don't win. The school system is devastated and the effects are felt for decades.

I am in Toronto at the 1974 AFT convention when Albert Shanker takes over the AFT from Dave Selden partly because he was opposed to the war. And in Hawaii a year later (Unity Caucus sure knew how to do it up) where we gave out a pamphlet called "The Case Against Shanker." Over the next few decades I am a delegate and a chapter leader. I put out Education Notes for 15 years, continuing even after retiring. No matter how I view the leadership, none of this is possible without the union.

It is not always easy to define the border between support for the union while opposing the people in power. But I always believe the struggle makes for a better union – a union that provided me with a sense of security to stand up and fight for the children and the community they come from in front of all the powers that be - school boards, superintendents, chancellors and even union officials.

I have been involved in a 40-year struggle with the people who have run the UFT/AFT. To make a better union. A union that even today still has enormous potential to be the major bulwark to fight off the ed deform attacks on parents, children, teachers and public education. Without the union, all would be lost and there would be not much left worth struggling for.


  1. Your last sentence was perfect. Too bad we had to read through all the drek to get there.

    There is no doubt when you're right - you're right.

    Believe it or not, we all still love you because you are not ME$ME -- you are the crazy uncle who should be appreciated and taken out for an Egg Cream and a Pretzle on Sunday Afternoons.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Norm. It's so important for young teachers to hear and learn about these stories from the people who young people often forget were once just like them. This is the best tool we have to fight those who get suckered in by E$E.


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