Friday, March 21, 2014
So Goes the UFT, So Goes the NYSUT Election?
Amid an outcry from members over the sale of public education to plutocrats, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has stopped accepting donations to its Innovation Fund from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Missed among its squirming within the tentacles of privatization was the AFT's slight gesture of solidarity, since a proposed raise in member dues promises to recoup half of the money the organization received each year from Gates. With organized labor drinking cold coffee these days, $500,000 from 1.5 million teachers suddenly buys a lot more democracy than $1 million from a guy who couldn’t teach his way out of a wet paper bag. The AFT should lead similar efforts to stem the stream of plutocratic money into itself and public education before our schools are overrun by robots.
Meanwhile, as Governor Andrew Cuomo rams nonsensical and undemocratic education reforms down New Yorkers’ throats, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) will hold an election at its Representative Assembly (RA) on April 5 to decide who will lead one of the AFT’s largest affiliates for the next 3 years. Though democracy should be baked into the marrow of unions, NYSUT’s election reeks of disparity.
As NYSUT’s largest local, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) will be represented by 800 delegates at the RA—roughly one-third of the votes. Each one of these delegates belongs to an invite-only group within the UFT called the Unity Caucus, run by UFT President Michael Mulgrew. In order to be “eligible” for membership in the Unity Caucus and vote in NYSUT elections, UFT members must “abide by its rules”, which include:
· To express criticism of caucus policies within the Caucus;
· To support the decisions of Caucus/Union leadership in public or Union forums;
· To support in Union elections only those individuals who are endorsed by the Caucus, and to actively campaign for his/her election;
· To run for Union office only with the support of the caucus;
These draconian rules—in addition to shamelessly soliciting the votes of retirees across the country—have kept the Unity Caucus in control of the UFT for nearly 50 years. With no room for dissent in Unity, there’s no room for dissent in the UFT. Consequently, with no room for dissent in its largest local, there’s less room for dissent in NYSUT. Before any votes are cast at the RA, the “individuals who are endorsed by the Caucus”—in this year’s case the entire Revive NYSUT slate of candidates—have an 800 delegate lead. Should 800 devotees to undemocratic caucus exert this much influence in an organization of 600,000 members?
Mulgrew, whose achievements as UFT president so far include zero contracts and a state-imposed teacher evaluation plan (APPR), has a lot riding on a Revive victory, including a suitcase full of back pay if he can parlay it into an AFL-CIO endorsement for Cuomo. Revive’s room temperature stance on Cuomo has done little to allay fears they won’t try to win over the Lobbyist for the Students and push an endorsement, or at least force NYSUT to remain neutral. For example, at a recent NYSUT candidates forum in Long Island, Andy Pallotta, running for re-election on the insurgent slate, meekly admitted he wouldn’t “personally” endorse Cuomo after being pressed by a skeptical audience. The UFT-bred Pallotta’s sincerity strains credulity in light of his $10,000 expenditure of voluntary union money (VOTE-COPE) at Cuomo’s birthday party and his designs to donate $250,000 more to the New York Democratic Party, an election-year goody bag for the governor.
Unity delegates represent a myriad of members and interests throughout the nation’s largest school system. Shouldn’t they at least be allowed to vote for the individual candidates of their choice? If anything, a group representing so many members in NYSUT’s first-ever contested election should consider carefully which candidates it chooses to endorse, unlike this year, when Mulgrew endorsed Revive before many of his members even knew there was an election. Though most teachers in New York have made up their minds about Cuomo, few even know who Karen Magee is.
Cuomo will continue to reward his highest bidder, however. Even if Mulgrew does get his back pay, he’ll still have to deal with Cuomo’s APPR and the metastasis of charter schools throughout the city. Mulgrew would be best served by rallying his members against Cuomo’s duplicity, such as his proposal to use the state’s budget to “protect” charter schools while at the same time calling for the “death penalty” for public schools.
NYSUT's Past is Precedent
Those still not buying Mulgrew's misguided motivations need look no further than NYSUT’s recent past for a precedent. In the 2002 gubernatorial election, the Union was sidelined after the UFT endorsed Republican George Pataki in his race against Democratic challenger H. Carl McCall. NYSUT was forced out of that race while a younger and well-financed Cuomo poked McCall throughout the primary. Pataki easily took care of a wounded McCall in November, with many NYSUT members appalled by their Union’s lack of support for McCall and the UFT’s bow to Pataki. The words of a rank and file teacher from a 2002 New York Times article echo what could soon reverberate again throughout the state:
''I am embarrassed by this endorsement,'' said Barbara Glassman, a Queens special education teacher and supporter of Mr. McCall. ''We have a tradition of backing our friends, and Carl McCall has consistently been a unionist and friend of education.''
It didn’t hurt that Pataki included $200 million in the state budget that year for the UFT’s raises, which immediately followed then UFT President Randi Weingarten awarding Pataki the UFT’s John Dewey Humanitarian Award. Weingarten "grew up in politics" with Andrew Cuomo and groomed Mulgrew as her replacement. Similar to her protege, Weingarten was also in search of a contract in 2002 and had run out of strings to pull, repeatedly backing the wrong mayoral candidates to face Michael Bloomberg, an enemy of the labor movement. As McCall himself observed at the time:
“You know, they [the UFT] need a contract,” McCall said. “They need more money. And, you know, he’s holding them up. ‘You want more money? Then do something for me.’ ”
“Anybody who would support the Governor on the basis of his education program and his education policies would be betraying the schoolchildren of New York State.”
McCall was likely unaware of his power for prophecy at the time.
An Opportunity for MORE Voices
With major NYSUT positions and policies at stake this year, New York City teachers unfortunately need a written invitation to be heard by a local that suppresses some of its strongest voices. Facing an intransigent Unity, where can these voices go to be heard?
Ironically, back to their state union.
UFT candidates for at-large directors include Julie Cavanagh (who unsuccessfully ran against Mulgrew for president last year), James Eterno, Lauren Cohen, Jia Lee, Mike Schirtzer, and Francesco Portelos, a whistle-blowing teacher from Staten Island who's been exiled from his school and recently jailed for excessive satire. Portelos's strife taught him the value of unionism and can lend valuable experience in a climate in which many teachers have bullseyes on their backs.
Should these UFT dissidents win prominent positions in NYSUT, they would suddenly have a bully pulpit to channel an activistic UFT demographic, broadcasting the multitudinous needs of their members around the state and nation. No longer pinned down by the Unity Caucus, NYSUT's largest local would unfurl a tapestry of voices above the dictates of the few. Never before has such an opportunity presented itself to the UFT's rank and file members.
A Stronger Union
On April 5, Union delegates from around the state will gather in New York City beneath a wrinkled banner of democracy. Hopes remain high, however, that this banner will re-emerge smoother than before, with more members pressing its principles. Elections are only as healthy as the number of people who vote, after all. Though Mulgrew, Pallotta, and Revive may have locked up the votes of 800 delegates, they cannot guarantee a majority. This year's RA should attract more members than ever, fighting for a stronger NYSUT.