Wednesday, January 11, 2017

History of the UFT Opposition Since Late 80s Plus My Prequel

This Saturday, January 14, is a MORE retreat from 12-4. Kit Wainer has prepared a history for people so they have a basis for going forward. This is one of the most concise histories I've seen -- it would take me 4 hours and 20 pages to cover the same ground.

I only have gotten to know Kit since we began working together in MORE 5 years ago. He came out of Teachers for a Just Contract and I came from ICE. Both groups didn't always mesh very well together and I was somewhat wary of working with Kit in MORE. But happily, it has been an absolute pleasure to work with such a smart, perceptive and most importantly nice guy - despite the fact he introduced me to Mike Schirtzer who I seem to be saddled with for life.

Before reading Kit's history, I wanted to provide a prequel so there is some pre-late 80s context for the various caucus genealogies.

There is no actual beginning and end of the many caucuses in the UFT over decades.

There are links going back to the 1920s.

There is a timeline -  caucuses split, combine, evolve. This is not necessarily 100% accurate as I'm too lazy to go find the relevant info  --

Teachers Union (TU): 1916-1964 - - read - Clarence Taylor, "Reds at the Blackboard" and Marjorie Murphy, "Blackboard Unions".
Also read Peter Lamphere review of the Taylor book in the International Socialist Review - A different kind of teachers union -

Control of the TU shifted from the socialists to the communists in the 1930s and eventually the socialists split in 1936 and formed the Teachers Guild.

Teachers Guild - 1936-1960 -anti-Communism - socialist wing - later became basis of UFT/Unity Caucus after merging with other groups.

Unity Caucus -- result of merger of Teachers Guild
 c. 1960-62 -present - has run UFT since inception.

Teachers Action Caucus (TAC) - 1968/9 - 1995
Teachers Union members after disbanding in 1964 came together as a result of the 1968 teacher strike. Merged with New Directions Caucus in 1995.

Coalition of School Workers (CSW) - the caucus I was in.  c. 1970-1982. (Core of ICE in 2003).

New Directions - 1976- Split from CSW, 1995 - merged with TAC to form New Action.

Chalk Dust -- split from New Directions c. 1978 - functioned until early 90s.

Teachers for a Just Contract (TJC)  1993-2012- included some remnants from Chalk Dust.

Independent Community of  Educators (ICE), 2003-2012 as a caucus, continues as a blog and discussion group.

Progressive Action Caucus (PAC) - late 90s- 2004. Focused on teacher licensing issues. Ran in UFT elections in coalition with New Action. A few members worked with ICE and TJC - ran in coalition with ICE in 2004 as ICE-PAC.

Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) - 2009-2012 - originally non-caucus offshoot of ICE, eventually joined by people from NYCORE and TJC -- genesis of MORE.

MORE -- 2011 (early meetings) - present.

OK - So now with this convoluted background you can see that MORE and New Action and Unity have roots going back to the 1920s in the case of the direct line
 TU -- TAC - New Action
           Teachers Guild - Unity

And the 1970s -- CSW - ICE - GEM - MORE
                             New Directions -- Chalk Dust - TJC - MORE

Here is Kit's report:
Hi folks,
I look forward to the meeting Saturday and wanted to contribute some thoughts to the bigger picture discussions that have started about what we can learn from the past and the profound challenges ahead.
I think it would be a mistake to attempt to learn only from MORE’s past. It’s brief lifespan simply does not offer enough information from which to draw meaningful lessons. Rather, I’d suggest we try to learn from the longer history of oppositional groups (many of which were not caucuses) within the UFT. I can speak from firsthand knowledge about oppositional history from the late 1980s to the present and will refer to some of the history Norm and Ellen described at one of the summer workshops a couple years ago.
It is important to recognize that every school of thought about how to build an opposition, or some kind of movement that can transform the union or public education in New York City, has been tested. Some groups have addressed only traditional workplace, labor-management issues. Others have concentrated on changing educational policy more broadly. Still others have attempted to bridge the gap between those two conceptions. In the early 1990s New Action focused on wage disparities between NYC teachers and those in the surrounding districts. Early in that decade both Advocates for Education and People About Changing Education tried to recruit teachers and parents to pressure the city to enact progressive education reforms. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the Progressive Action Caucus recruited several dozen teachers who had failed their licensing exams to press the city for a fairer – non-racially-discriminatory – licensing system. They ran in UFT elections trying to get the UFT to take on their issue. From 1993-2012 Teachers for a Just Contract tried to organize around the question of union strategy, arguing that a union that refuses to prepare a “credible threat of an effective strike is at the mercy of the employer.” From 2003 onwards ICE attempted to organize UFT members around a combination of labor-management and education policy issues. There are of course several other experiences I have omitted.  Norm and Ellen’s summer presentations suggest that the range of strategies that were tried in the 1970s was even wider.
In my view what is most noteworthy is the continuity. From 1970 to the present UNITY has had a firm grasp over the UFT. New Actions’ winning of a single Vice Presidency in the 1980s and 13 Executive Board seats in the early 1990s did not change that. No caucus has ever been able to seriously contend for the presidency or force UNITY to do anything that would endanger its strategy of labor-management cooperation or its control over the UFT.
Nor have any of the groups seriously dented the education reform agenda. Given the wide variety of organizations that have existed and the varying philosophical and strategic assumptions which motivated them, and given that none of them achieved their ultimate objectives, it is difficult to believe that lack of the correct strategy is what is preventing us from growing into a force that can take over the UFT. If a particular approach to workplace-based unionism or social justice unionism were the key, one of the previous groups would have achieved its goals and we wouldn’t need to have this discussion today.
From this I draw a few conclusions:
1.     No group or advocate of a particular strategy can point to the past and claim that a specific model has been proven to be successful. Again, had a particular approach succeeded UNITY would not be in power today, or at least UFT policies would be dramatically different.

2.     The problem is bigger than strategy. It is the consciousness of our members. By consciousness I mean the set of assumptions members have about what is possible and/or desirable in their union or workplaces and what has caused (who is to blame for) what is wrong. The majority are disengaged, they don’t see the UFT as a significant force in their lives, and don’t care very much which policies it pursues. We know this from consistently low election turnouts, very low rates of participation in UFT actions such as rallies, and low rates of attendance at Delegate Assemblies and Chapter Leader meetings. However, this should not be presumed to be a fixed feature of membership consciousness. There have been a few moments where this changed: particularly around contract times (1995 & 2005) when the number of activists* expanded, but only temporarily. These sudden bursts of activity ultimately petered out, but they show us that members can see the world around them differently and can turn toward activism.

3.     However, the majority of those who remain engaged do not agree with us. They support UNITY. They accept the common sense of trade unionism today: that unions use dues money to lobby, inform the public, and influence politicians. Unions, according to this view, do not mobilize or engage in social disruptions that could jeopardize their political connections or real estate holdings. The majority of active delegates and chapter leaders either agree with this or don’t see an alternative they consider realistic. Because they have no lived experience with a different model of unionism, our ideas often seem “pie in the sky,” or down right cooky.

4.     Debating whether we are satisfied with lobbying the leadership from within the Executive Board and DA or are seeking to control the union misses the point: we can’t do either unless consciousness changes. Whether such changes will come about as a product of members seeing a growth in more activist militant unions and/or broader social movements around them, or internal UFT developments such as successful membership actions against abusive administrators is something we can’t predict. In fact, whether consciousness will change at all within the timespan of any of our careers, is something we don’t really know. What we can do is contribute to changing mentalities: convincing members that if they work with their colleagues around issues such as fighting abusive administrators or against the impacts of the testing craze on teachers and students they can make a difference and that their union should be leading and organizing these fights. From my own experience in the school system and my reading of US labor history I believe that those who live with day-to-day indignities in their particular school while feeling isolated and abandoned by their union, are less likely to connect their sufferings to a broader analysis and are more likely to see such analyses as abstract. By contrast, members who have seen firsthand the potential for collective action and whose experiences have taught them that it can work, are more likely to broaden their horizons.
Looking forward …
The December Delegate Assembly provided further evidence that the UFT leadership has its head in the sand. Only 2 minutes of Michael Mulgrew’s nearly one-hour presentation addressed the Friedrichs case, even though that case could render everything else we do moot. To recap, the plaintiffs in the Friedrich’s case argued that requiring public employees who refuse to join their union to pay agency fees is unconstitutional. The questioning by the justices indicated that a majority was prepared to agree. This could potentially devastate the finances of public employee unions. Current UFT members, for example, could maintain the right to full UFT protection and Welfare Fund membership without having to pay UFT dues. According to one former DC 37 staff member, DC 37 leaders had anticipated losing 30% of their membership within the first year after a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. The night the case was heard I attended a UFT election committee meeting and listened as several UFT staff members joked about when layoffs would begin at union headquarters.
In February 2016 the unions were spared this eventuality when Justice Antonin Scalia died. However, Donald Trump has promised to appoint a justice in Scalia’s image. And there is every reason to believe he will do so. Mulgrew contended that a Friedrichs’-type case will make it to the Supreme Court in 18-24 months. It is extremely probable that the plaintiffs will prevail and agency fees will be declared unconstitutional. While the specifics of such a ruling are difficult to predict – and the impacts may differ from state to state – it seems highly likely that the UFT will quickly lose tens of thousands of members. Some will leave because they want to save money. Others will depart because there is no union in their schools and, consequently, nobody to ask them to stay.
I conclude from this that a big part of our message has to be “Save our union!” It would be a mistake for us to debate what kind of caucus or public face we need without recognizing that our union may soon be dealt a fatal blow. Union members will only stick around if they believe that having a union will materially improve their work lives and that they need to contribute in order to ensure the union's existence. If UFT member believe the union is nothing but its Welfare Fund and a lobbying agency, their motivation to maintain membership will weaken. In our work against abusive administrators, against testing, or on any other issue, we should be saying that if we can’t transform our union so that we can show members that standing together pays off, we may lose the entire union.
* In the email discussion on planning the agenda at least one commenter suggested that the word “activist” is really code for leftish ideologue. This is inaccurate. I believe that if we are to avoid living in the bubble that Norm warns against, we need to use terminology in accordance with colloquial meanings in the United States. “Activist” is commonly understood to mean one who is active, or actively engaged in some type of project or organization. Generally, it is used to refer to political engagement. At Chapter Leader trainings, UFT officers have often referred to those who serve on the chapter committees or participate in union activities as activists. Years ago I signed up for the AFT’s email “activist list” and regularly received emails from Randi beginning with “Dear AFT activist,…” The Democratic and Republican Parties refer to grass-roots campaigners as “party activists,” as does the Tea Party. None of them are referring to left ideologues. When MORE members use the term we should assume they are using it in the colloquial sense unless they specify otherwise.



  1. How would having a smaller union or no union affect retirees? Will Freidrich affect past, present, and future pensions?

    1. Hell yes - all balls are in the air. Imagine a pension underfunding crisis and people are asked to take a 10% cut. Now that may be against the law or the state constitution - but that can be changed. Do you think the 7% tda survives? Maybe for cops and firemen.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You left out the very important High School Teachers Association, a group instrumental in starting the UFT. Roger Parente and Samuel Hochberg are two of my union heroes. They were called militants and led the first strike by NYC teachers in 1959 (Evening High School Teachers). They also were a big part of the the merger of the High School Teachers Association and the Guild that formed the UFT.

    1. I never viewed them as the same at the other groups because they were a focused narrow self interest group tho very important due to strikes. There were also many other groups like them that merged into uft unity. Elem associated and others.

  3. Thank you for your accurate comment and recognition of my dad and Mr. Hochberg, Mr. Eterno. 'ed notes', they and their colleagues were hardly focused, narrow or self-interested. They sought unity, commitment and inclusiveness among teachers who sought to break free from the old guard, who were indeed the ones guided by complacency and self-interest. Hochberg, Parente and others' interests were for fairness for the hard work of teachers (who were paid less than plumbers at the time of their activism and had no collective bargaining rights - or many rights of any kind), security for themselves and their families and to provide quality instruction for their students.

  4. Thank you for your accurate comment and recognition of my dad and Mr. Hochberg, Mr. Eterno. 'ed notes', they and their colleagues were hardly focused, narrow or self-interested. They sought unity, commitment and inclusiveness among teachers who sought to break free from the old guard, who were indeed the ones guided by complacency and self-interest. Hochberg, Parente and others' interests were for fairness for the hard work of teachers (who were paid less than plumbers at the time of their activism and had no collective bargaining rights - or many rights of any kind), security for themselves and their families and to provide quality instruction for their students.


Comments are welcome. Irrelevant and abusive comments will be deleted, as will all commercial links. Comment moderation is on, so if your comment does not appear it is because I have not been at my computer (I do not do cell phone moderating). Or because your comment is irrelevant or idiotic.