Members of the Newark Teachers Union:
(And the Wider Newark Community)
This letter is in response to the slanderous piece recently published by members of the NTU leadership, particularly Director of Organization John Abeigon and his Secretary Treasurer candidate Michael Iovino.
In expensive campaign literature for their UFC slate, these NTU “leaders” purposefully and maliciously manipulate and take facts out of context to slander NEW Caucus, and particularly our chair, Branden Rippey. In this literature we are accused of existing only to “harangue, undermine and destabilize” the Newark Teachers Union; being undemocratic and allowing Branden to lead from the “top down”; orchestrating chaos on the NTU Executive Board; and finally, Branden is accused of being a communist in the tradition of Joseph Stalin.
We, the NEW Caucus Steering Committee, are responding to correct and give context to each of these untrue, malicious, and purposely defamatory accusations.
The purpose of NEW Caucus – from its initial formation as the United for Change slate, which ran for NTU office in 2011, through its founding in the winter of 2012 up until today, June 2015 - has been to rebuild, reenergize, and reorient the Newark Teachers Union to take on the daunting challenges we face. It was clear in the spring of 2011, Governor Christie’s first months in office, that the NTU leadership (at that time Joe Del Grosso, Pietro Petino, and supported by John Abeigon) had no response, either rhetorical or real, to the attacks on our profession, our schools, and our students. When publicly asked what their plan would be, they responded, “It is not our job to tell NPS what they are doing wrong. We let it happen and then litigate it.” The NTU had reached a low point, with little to no member activity, little or no communication between leadership and membership, and a complete inability to organize more than a handful of members under even the most dire of circumstances.
Branden Rippey, as building rep from Science Park High School, had for nearly four years attempted to work with and be heard by President DelGrosso and then Executive Director Pietro Petino. After having his outreach and suggestions to them ignored for most of that time, and after the election of Governor Christie, it became clear to Branden and other concerned NTU members - notably Jose Velazquez of University High School - that something had to be done. These two members then contacted a small group of other teachers, including Michael Iovino, to begin what would soon become the original United for Change electoral slate and later the Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus.
The purpose of this slate and later NEW Caucus was never to simply “harangue, undermine and destabilize” the NTU. Everything we did was an attempt to organize and mobilize the membership to begin the process of rebuilding, reorienting, and reenergizing our union. When the NTU leadership proposed and initiated a positive, proactive, reasonably sensible reform or action, we supported it wholeheartedly, and were generally the only NTU members out to support. When, however, the NTU leadership did nothing in the face of attacks, or proposed and initiated self-defeating, defensive, less than sensible reforms or actions, we exercised our right as members to criticize those initiatives and often to propose our own. Rarely did we criticize without offering a positive alternative. And often, when the NTU leadership failed to acknowledge, take ownership of, or support our proposals and initiatives, we simply carried them out on our own.
Their campaign literature also accuses Branden of taking near dictatorial control of the caucus “as a leader where everything came from a ‘top down decision’ rather than taking the advice of those who were part of the caucus.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there were one or two members of NEW Caucus who did want to be less open, more guarded with how we made decisions. But Branden was not one of them. Yes, as in any organization, some members chose to leave because of disagreements with other members, or because they felt their views no longer meshed with those of the majority of the caucus. But to assert that Branden tried to be or was in control of the caucus is simply not true. Even when we were not as effectively democratic as we would have liked, we were and are a far cry from the fantasy dictatorship of Branden Rippey that Michael Iovino tries to create.
His words are either incorrect recollections, or, most likely, purposely slanderous. We believe this stems from an election early in NEW Caucus’ existence, when the membership voted on leadership, and he was not elected. It was not long after this election that Michael decided to take a leave of absence from NEW Caucus, resigning as a member a few months later, only to join the SAC slate of President Del Grosso and John Abeigon a few months later.
Their literature also accuses us, and specifically Branden, of causing “pandemonium on the Executive Board during the past two years.” This accusation is also comical, particularly when put into context! First, we must admit that the eighteen NEW Vision (NEW Vision was and is the slate supported by NEW Caucus) E-Board members were not as organized or informed as they needed to be to face what they did. Even with support from NEW Caucus leadership, they were often unable to carry out key goals. But to argue that Branden is somehow solely or even mostly responsible for their inability to make change is going too far.
Much of what the NEW Vision Executive Board members tried to accomplish was stonewalled by the existing NTU leadership: President Del Grosso, Director of Organization John Abeigon, and Secretary Treasurer Michael Dixon. The NEW Vision E-Board members were able to ensure monthly meetings, and that those meetings be open to the membership. They also pushed and carried through the Fight Back Friday campaign, with little or no organizational assistance from the three “leaders.”
But other than that, they were stonewalled at every turn, told their motions were “out of order” or “inappropriate,” or “not necessary.” From the beginning, it was a struggle to even hold the first meeting. It took months to secure positions on internal NTU committees, even longer to get the contact info for members of each committee. During meetings, President Del Grosso and John Abeigon regularly made evasive, confusing, contradictory, even misleading statements. They were often offensive and rude, in some cases outright insulting and belligerent. Meetings were dragged out with unnecessary business, so that by the time “new business” was reached, John Abeigon often proposed that the meeting be adjourned.
It got worse this 2014-2015 school year, when four meetings were cancelled and never rescheduled, for little or no reason. President Del Grosso never attended one meeting, and John Abeigon’s offensive and aggressive behavior continued. To accuse Branden of being responsible for the lack of change would be laughable, if it was not a serious and slanderous way to discredit him and what the NEW Vision slate members attempted to accomplish.
Yes, some NEW Vision E-Board members were not as thoroughly prepared and polished as we would have wanted. But calm, firm leadership could easily have dealt with the situation, and helped to develop and lead otherwise earnest new members. Instead, those earnest new members ran up against a wall of intransigence, which led to increasing frustration and eventually general conflict.
Their campaign literature further accuses Branden of not attending meetings. This is, again, simply untrue. Even though he was never an elected member of the E-Board, and therefore never required to attend, he went to every open meeting that year. He was more frustrated than anyone by what he witnessed. During this second year (2014-2015), once it had become painfully clear that the NEW Vision slate members would not be able to accomplish anything concrete, then yes, he did stop attending. But to openly state that he did not attend, or that he “orchestrated” their failure to accomplish anything, or that he is solely responsible for this situation, is at best disingenuous, but more likely a malicious slander.
One final point about their literature must be addressed. Branden is a leftist. He is an open socialist. And for that he is attacked as if we live during the first Red Scare following World War I, or the second Red Scare and McCarthy Era of the late 1940s and early 1950s. He came to be a socialist after decades of studying history deeply, learning over time the many inherent problems of a capitalist political-economy, and seeing first hand in recent years its effects on our public schools. For that, John Abeigon and Michael Iovino have pulled out the time honored smear used for more than a century by paranoid American conservatives: label him a Marxist and a communist! Even better, associate him with Joseph Stalin!
It is important to keep in mind that red-baiting has been used often throughout history to smear people who in any way challenge the privilege of those in power. It was used to destroy the careers and lives of many teachers and professors during the aforementioned Red Scares. It was used by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s to fire founding members of the Newark Teachers Union, like Bob Lowenstein, the beloved Weequahic High School English teacher who believed in social movement unionism - as we in NEW Caucus do - before the term existed. And it is worth remembering that when he began to threaten the prerogatives of the wealthy and powerful in 1960s, these same conservative, racist, anti-communist warriors accused Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of being a communist.
By calling Branden a communist, a Marxist, and equating him with Stalin, John Abeigon and Michael Iovino are filling the shoes of some of the great paranoid conservatives in American history. For that they should be proud!
The expensive and dishonest attacks on us are a sign of John Abeigon’s desperation to save his job after years of presiding over a union in decline, while helping that decline along by alienating members and pushing destructive and insulting contracts on the membership. It is also a sign of the vanity of the self proclaimed “progressive visionary” Michael Iovino, who resorts to the demagogic tactics of Joseph McCarthy to slander former friends. Michael Iovino regularly tells us that he co-founded NEW Caucus. If he believes NEW Caucus is so terrible, then why does he continue to call himself a “progressive,” as NEW Caucus is, and reference his co-founding of it? Was he confused then? Or is he confused now, as he calls himself a “progressive” yet runs on the slate headed by the narrow minded conservative, John Abeigon? No “progressive visionary” ever voted for George Bush Jr. twice, as Mr. Iovino did in 2000 and 2004! Was he confused then as well? Who will he vote for in the 2016 Presidential election? Scott Walker? Given his history, that would not surprise us.
In contrast, for nearly four years NEW Caucus has fought to defend education workers in Newark and beyond, fought to defend public education in Newark and beyond, and fought to defend our students in Newark and beyond. We have travelled to New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago (twice) to learn, organize, and act in defense of our professions and schools. We have done it during our lunch periods, after school, on weekends, during vacations, and during our summers. We have done it all for free, with no salary, no stipends, no rewards, no bonuses, spending thousands of dollars of our own money to study and learn how best to fight back.
We want nothing less than good public schools for all children, dignified work conditions and autonomy for education workers, and fair pay and benefits for those education workers. We believe that the only way toward these outcomes is an organized, powerful Newark Teachers Union and an organized and powerful union movement. That is why we have worked so hard for nearly four years – to reorient, rebuild, and reenergize our union and make it an active part of a growing progressive union movement nationwide.
To have done anything less, as the leaders of the UFC slate have chosen to do, would be to become part of the problem.
NEW Caucus Steering Committee
Leah Z. Owens