Six years ago I was nominated as a UFT delegate from my school. That means I attend the UFT Delegate Assembly with chapter leaders and delegates from around the city once a month. The job of a delegate is to hear a report from our union president on the state of our union, public schools, and what the latest news is from our relationships with politicians. Delegates also have time to ask questions and raise resolutions about the direction our union should take. Often the UFT leadership raises resolutions that dictate the direction of our union and polices we will advocate for. These proposals should result in vigorous discussion and debate. After-all we're deciding on the direction of the largest teachers union in the USA. Whatever we decide has ripple effects throughout the country. However, I learned rather quickly the debates are far from honest.
The leadership of the UFT and close to 2/3 the 700 of the delegates that go to DAs are part of an inner political party, known as Unity caucus. The Unity caucus members follow party lines, meaning they all vote the same way, every time, no matter what!.When I showed at my first DA and I heard a chapter leader raising a resolution that any new evaluation system the union agrees to should go the membership for an online vote. It sounded like a rational argument to me, but then speaker after speaker got up and spoke against it. Finally someone from the DA stood up and said "I call the question" which meant debate ended without ever hearing an additional speaker in favor of the resolution.
It seemed weird to me. Why were fellow delegates, fellow teachers voting against and even speaking harshly in opposition to this resolution that all my friends at my school and every other school would vote in favor of? Seems obvious we should have a say in what our union negotiates that will impact our careers. When Mulgrew called on speakers he asked them for their names and schools. They all presented themselves and then spoke against it.
The resolution was voted down. It all seemed so strange to me. In the next few months there were resolutions raised against common core, against high stakes testing, supporting parents that opt their children out of testing, and for sports programs in all schools, all voted down. They all were resolutions that would have been voted for overwhelmingly in my school and by my friends and family that are teachers. Yet they were all voted down.
At the same time resolutions for political endorsements that should have had discussion and debate were overwhelmingly voted on and spoke in favor of by all the same people. I began to realize each month it was the same people speaking against resolutions. Each month the same people were called on to ask softball questions. Each month Mulgrew called on the same people as if he never met them before.
Soon I learned all these people are in the same party or caucus, all are required to vote the same as Mulgrew, and are required to follow the party line whatever that might be. (This is known as democratic centralism.)
If Unity said common core and test based evaluations were great, then every Unity member would say the same. When the leadership reverses itself everyone in Unity goes along with the party line.
No matter how good your argument is, no matter what our chapter members want, Unity members are required to vote what the party says. You cant change minds, your arguments don't matter because it has already been pre-determined how the members of the majority party will vote. It can become demoralizing.
Now that I have been elected to the UFT Executive Board as one of the seven MORE/New Action High School reps (Unity has the other 93 positions), I am finding the experience of the Unity wall the same as a DA, just on a smaller scale. Out of 100 members that are supposed to be discussing and debating the position and direction of our union, 7 are left to challenge the union leadership. While there is more debate than at the DA, decisions are already made behind closed doors.
While we almost always support the leadership positions, anything we bring up is automatically opposed or amended to take the teeth out.
If our group, MORE/New Action says the sky is blue, the Unity caucus will say it's red. When members vote as a block and cannot be convinced to change their minds that is not in the best interest of our union.
Showing up to vote as a block and not identifying yourself as a member of Unity falsely leading everyone to believe you're speaking for yourself or the people who elected you in your school when in reality you're taking the party position and no one can can convince you otherwise.
Unity Caucus, which has exercised total power over the UFT since its founding, in theory functions internally in a democratic manner. But in reality, the top leadership decides and everyone follows along. So there is little real debate internally in the caucus and a narrow point of view and agenda becomes the operating feature. This leads to bad decision making and bad policy and ultimately causes harm to the membership.