Sunday, November 12, 2017

Mike Schirtzer on How Unity Caucus Votes

Mike, with over a dozen years in the system, ruminates on his experiences with the Unity Caucus machine. He is over 30 years younger than me but I expect when he reaches my age he will still be going to UFT DAs to hand out our newsletter, Another View in The UFT - Our New DA Newsletter.

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. 

18 comments:

  1. Unity are scum. Plain and simple.

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  2. Mike Schirtzer for UFT President!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  3. Looks like you have the lead column for the next newsletter.

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  4. Great job Mike. This needs to get in the schools more than the DA.

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  5. Good work, Mike.

    I sometimes like to pose questions for the sake of the question--hoping that it will stir some discussion but not necessarily because I support a particular approach.

    But when it comes to the DA and its usefulness, I'm reminded of MORE meetings that I attended in 2013 and 2014, when I was an active member. Many of the meetings, which could be interminable for lots of reasons, turned on long and anguished debates about resolutions to be brought to the next DA. I didn't understand the point of it all then and I still don't.

    When I was a teacher at the Gautier Institute for Law and Public Policy (!)--or GILPP--in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx from 2009-2012 I never once heard of the Delegate Assembly or about anything that had happened at one and I had one of the all-time great chapter leaders, Zulma Villalba. I doubt that one in 50 teachers in Canarsie, Astoria or Tottenville has ever heard of the DA or cares about anything that happens at one.

    I've been told that the DA is an opportunity to educate and organize union leaders who may be sympathetic to the idea of a democratic and transparent UFT. How many delegates are open to any of that besides the members of MORE and the handful of others not directly affiliated with Unity? I've never been persuaded that the DA is worth all the time and energy expended by union democrats. It exists. I get that people do what they can when and where they can and that the DA is an obvious "thing" to try to penetrate. But has the last four years of resolution-submitting that I'm familiar with accomplished anything concrete? Anything that doesn't rely on simple assertions that it is an effective way to organize and educate delegates, themselves, much less actual teachers in actual schools?

    Chapter outreach and organizing is a very hard and painful process that may take years to show tangible results. Does all the work put into DAs and DA resolutions detract from other, perhaps more useful but difficult work? Is it possible that monthly DAs are like the proverbial shiny objects that get dangled in front of people to mesmerize them. As Mike says, winning high-school seats on the Executive Board has at least allowed our allies to raise difficult questions and demand some small amount of accountability from UFT-Unity leadership and members. But this fixation with the DA is something I've never and still don't understand.

    [One last thing, 'democratic centralism' may be the mark of the Unity caucus but I remember it being in plain display at almost every MORE meeting I ever attended--part of the reason I stopped going to MORE meetings in early 2015].

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    1. Harris, that's because, just as Unity members raise and discuss resolutions and shut down debate without identifying themselves, a Left sect was likewise doing the same at MORE meetings.

      Then, when people who've observed this kind of thing over and over again through the years raise objections, they're accused of red-baiting.

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  6. This is MORE's steering committee? https://morecaucusnyc.org/our-current-steering-committee/

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  7. Why is my name still listed as a steering member of MORE? That was over 3 years ago. Take that off. Thanks.

    I'm not sure what this post was about. I mean what new information that hasn't been rehashed over and over and over and over again. Yes, Unity is in control and has been Mike. Yes MORE is involved in the idea of democratic centralism.

    Insanity is defined as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

    Try something different.

    [Que the anonymous Portelos punches.]

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    1. My name is there too. You mean you didn't have fun being on MORE steering? I assume all steering committees are listed. It is not as if that was made up.

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  8. Let's try something different. Instead of democratic centralism let's try Portelos centralism.

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  9. The steering meetings weren't so bad and more democratic, but the general meetings are something that I swore I would never waste time with again. I did attend some sort of MORE conference in 2015. That was pretty good with breakout sessions, but as usual no follow up. Where was the talk and action after the probationary teachers breakout? What happens after Janus? What does MORE leadership want and what does MORE membership want?

    How about Solidarity Centralism? (Not to be confused with UFT Solidarity Centralism)


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    1. I think we're all spinning our wheels. But as long as we are having fun. Post Janus things may get interesting.

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  10. Portelos, he'll soon be an administrator making teachers' lives miserable. Although word on the DOE street is he is a terrible interview.

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    1. Portelos will not be an administrator in public schools in NYC in the near future - as long as there are people in the DOE and UFT with memories. But I don't see why he would be worse than the current crop we have. At least he is competent. He will not take being crossed but why is that different than any principal today? and one would hope his experiences as a teacher would translate. In the current state of supervisordom I urge progressive people to become admins. Like who wouldn't want to work for Julie Cavanagh or Brian de Vale?

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  11. The UFT has tolerated discriminatory practices like the ATR Pool, and harassment of veteran teachers.

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