Thursday, April 7, 2011

Another New Generation Activist Enters the Fray

In August, Julie Cavanagh asked me what was my long-time goal, aside from laying in the sun smoking a cigar. Not one to think about things too deeply, I responded, "To find 50 more people like you." (A whole bunch of us are fighting it out over who really discovered Julie, who a year and a half ago was only known inside her school community and in some ed policy groups.) Well, it certainly has been a pleasure for "grampa" (as Julie often refers to me) to meet an increasingly large group of new gen ed activists. That they all seem so much wiser than "grampa" makes me kvell.

Liza Campbell is one of this new generation of rising stars flooding the teacher activist movement in direct opposition to groups like Educators4Excellence. While believing in dedication to the classroom, these activists also believe they must fight outside the classroom, not for a narrow self-serving political agenda like E$E but for the social justice rights for their children and the parents of their children, along with their own rights as teachers. Reforming the UFT is also in their sights (and don't think this isn't making the Unity honchos nervous - they are badmouthing groups like GEM behind the scenes).

I only know Liza, a 25 year old 3rd year teacher, for a few months but have been extremely impressed with her creative energy, organizing skills and willingness to take on any task. And she knows so damned much in such a short time.

Liza was one of the leaders of the under 5 year group of teachers passing around a petition supporting LIFO. And she has been writing some great stuff at the Gotham Community section. Her last piece was Why I Love Unions, But Not Always Their Leadership.  This is an absolute must-read.
Liza closes with
Unions, as a collective representation of working people, can be an incredibly powerful counter-force to corporate interests. Individual working people can have very little impact on policy because they do not have the financial prowess on their own to affect national policy the way those with a good deal of money at their disposal can. I am proud to be a member of a union, and I am very proud of my fellow UFT members. But when union leadership becomes too far-removed from the lived reality of their rank-and-file members and spends a significant amount of their time with the very people who are pushing the policies they should be fighting, they run the risk of losing sight of their mission. If the UFT had a leadership with a social justice orientation that viewed its role as strengthening educators’ ability to educate and mobilize against misguided reforms, then I would not only be proud of my union but proud of its leadership as well.
But you have to read it all - and leave some comments. I want to include a comment from another older gen much-admired activist, Michael Fiorillo - watching Michael and the new gen activists like Julie and Liza mingling brings a big smile to my face since I have often been the connector (which  seems to be my main purpose in all this).
Congratulations on your fine analysis of the shortcomings of the UFT leadership, but things are unfortunately even worse than you say.

The aggressive attacks against teachers and public education in NYC would not have been possible without the dictatorial powers the mayor has over the school system, and these powers would not have been granted without the approval of the UFT, and Randi Weingarten in particular.

The union had in the past successfully repelled mayoral power grabs, but in 2002 Weingarten acquiesed to it. The fragmentation, destabilization and privatization of the system started immediately, as intended. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver propsed a bill that would have given the mayor increased power over the Board of Education, but with checks and balances in place. Weingarten rejected that, inexplicably choosing absolute control of the schools by the mayor.

Worse was yet to come. The initial law granting the mayor absolute control of the schools was designed to sunset in 2009, allowing for the issue to be revisited, based on Bloomberg and Klein's actions. By that time there was widespread dissatisfaction with what Bloomberg and his factotum Klein were doing to the schools, and stakeholders began mobilizing to rein in the mayor's power. There was also strong sentiment in the union that something had to be done to limit the mayor's power.

After all, isn't checks and balances what the US system of government is supposed to be about?

Weingarten, however, had no intention of allowing that to happen, having apparently gotten used to getting rides in the mayor's private jet. So, using the craftiness that she never employed against the DOE, she impaneled a union committee to come up with suggestions for governance of the schools, in anticipation of the 2009 sunsetting of the law.

This Governance Committee, of which I was a member, worked diligently to come up with an alternative to the executive dictatorship that is destroying public education in cities across the country. Although I felt that the Committee's report did not go far enough, and participated in drafting a minority roport that would have gone farther in restricting exectutive power and giving more control to parents, teachers and elected officials, the Committee report that was eventually approved at the unions' Delegate Assembly would have been a tremendous improvement over what we have now.

But even that was not allowed to be. Acting unilaterally, without consulting the membership or the community groups that had enlisted in the fight against mayoral control, Weingarten sandbagged everyone by approving the continuation of mayoral control with just a few meaningless adjustments. Not a word was spoken by Michael Mulgrew in opposition to any of this.

And here we now find ourselves, with the DOE aggressively closing schools, enabling charter invasions, working 24/7 to undermine teaching as a career with professional autonomy and turning the education into a joyless forced march to competition for poverty-level jobs.

The story of the decline of unions over the past 35 years is in large part the story of the decline of the United States, as it has allowed for accelerating income inequality and concentration of power by finance capital. It is only the labor movement, as a self-financed working class institution, that can act as a counterweight to the immense power of employers.

This is playing out everywhere today, but especially in the public schools, since they have been targeted as a market that has yet to be maximized, and as a potential source of public wealth that has yet to be extracted by private interests. Sadly, what the oligarchs and their lapdogs propose is nothing less than the near-total destruction of public education, which despite its many shortcomings, is a uniquely American experiment in democracy. And Randi Weingarten and the one-party state that is the UFT/AFT have been the enablers of that.

Mulgrew got about the same percentage of votes as Mubarek in Egypt in the last election. Watch the deluge when LIFO goes.

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