Saturday, April 25, 2020

Shades of 1975 - Part 2: The Noblest Strike of Them All, I Run for UFT Delegate and am attacked for my politics

"There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen" ---- Vladimir Lenin - Jul 15, 1916
Remember this Lenin comment if the shit hits the fan in the fall.In 1975:

Even my conservative chapter leader had become a militant and we voted for a strike despite knowing about the two for one penalizes.

And this recent piece:
America Is About to Witness the Biggest Labor Movement It’s Seen in Decades: It took 40 years and a pandemic to stir up a worker revolution that’s about to hit corporate America
I even heard Mark Cuban echo this idea on Firing Line. See video.

Since I updated Part 1 on April 10 there's a lot of chatter about cuts to education at the city and state level and possible implications, which is what this series of posts is about by looking back to the 1975 crisis and see what we can learn.

I believe the 1975 strike was the noblest of them all - we weren't striking for money but for class size and the protection of the schools in addition to the 13,000 members being laid off.

First I want to focus on the effect of drastic cuts on what is a fairly docile membership and more importantly, a docile UFT leadership no matter what the bombast - remember my mantra - watch what they do, not what they say. However, if the rank and file rises as it did in 1975, the leadership may be forced into a more radical stance but will do whatever it can to dampen the militancy and undermine any radical actions.  Let's explore some of these ideas.

Two of the three largest cities had teacher strikes last fall - is NYC next?
[I wrote about the strike in 2018: 

Nov 23, 2018 - I was on the picket line for three strikes in my first 8 years as a teachers. There have been no NYC teacher strikes since 1975.] I posted my Taylor Law fine letter.
Most people would scoff at the idea of a strike here with the anti-strike UFT leadership. Are the teachers in NYC so different from those in Chicago and LA? Yes, of course to the extent that they were willing to elect a left leadership. But also had a more democratic system that made that possible - an issue for another time - Are the attitudes of our members shaped by the leadership or are the conditions in the schools better than they are in the other cities, leading to a more satisfied membership?

The left leadership and willingness to strike in those unions certainly makes a difference - as indicated by the support for Bernie in LA and the split support for Bernie and Warren in Chicago --- Biden was not even on their radar while in NYC and in the AFT Randi level it was clear the sentiment of the leadership has been for Biden - Mulgrew running as a delegate for him is a clue - and a strong anti-Bernie sentiment in the leadership. Remember how our leaders (Mulgrew and Randi attacked Medicare for all for taking away they wonderful health plans of workers?)

But the UFT leadership may be faced with a very different situation if massive cuts hit the schools.

I know there are skeptics about UFT members that I share -

- but in April 1975 they would have also scoffed at the idea of a strike. In September they went on strike. So you never know and that is the fun of speculation. And note the militancy on Sept. 8 and the change on Sept. 14. But after Sept 14 - it all faded pretty fast.

The 1975 NYC budget crisis, the UFT strike, the massive impact on the school system that lasted well over a decade and the lessons for the upcoming crisis that could conceivably match it - and I've
already seen references being made (sorry can't find the links.) On the other hand, the crisis did lead to more skepticism of the Shanker/Unity leadership in the high schools and ten years later about 50% of the high schools turned against Unity which has lasted pretty much lasted through today - as indicated in the 2016 UFT elections when the opposition won but frittered that win away by the 2019 election. But the sentiment in the high schools hasn't changed.

In Part 1 I talked about the layoffs and the cuts in the school day and the modifications to our contract and also the strike:

In Part 2 I'm going to flesh things out and also tell a personal story of running for union election in my school and how things changed between the spring of 1975 and the fall in terms of the militancy of the staff in my school. I was way ahead of them in my criticisms of the union leadership in the spring and possibly behind them in the fall.

I also will discuss the movements in the UFT, of which I was part of, opposing the Shanker machine. In part 3 I will compare the opposition then and now and maybe there will be a part 4. Along the way I am including excerpts from the Sept. 14, 1975 NYT reports on the settlement.

Here is the link to the Sept 14 NY Times article about the 1975 settlement:. If you go to the continuation on page 28 you will find  the DA vote is 662-359 and the Executive Board vote (all Unity) was 49-13

The impact of the crisis in 1975 and my school story illustrates how quickly events change people's views - similar to what I believe will happen all over the world especially with the labor force becoming more militant like it did in the past during crises (Depression), though there were already signs of that over the past few years, especially with teacher strikes.

In the 1975 strike settlement vote that passed, over a dozen Unity caucus members on Shanker's Ex Bd actually voted against the agreement to go back and wanted to remain on strike. Astounding if you know Unity Caucus and Shanker's control over the union.

Running for re-election as UFT delegate and facing an uphill battle

A memorable teaching and chapter election
In the 1974-75 school year I was teaching my first top class - 6-1 - every kid could read on grade level - and the class had basically been together since pre-k, a very different experience for me as a teacher. What a wonderful year of teaching - Over the next 26 years  I went to three of those students' weddings, the last one in August 2001. The majority of the class scored two years above level on the tests that year and went on to the district special junior high school. Tracking of classes was eliminated under BloomKlein.

A chapter election: (I am reporting on this election in depth because it does connect up with the crisis to come - learned a lot about school based organizing in the process so bear with me.)

I was distracted in the late spring of '75 by the upcoming chapter election for school delegate, a fairly inconsequential position that nobody but me had wanted over the past 4 years but was suddenly in contention.

The Independent Delegates at the DA and the opposition
I had become a well-known UFT activist in the district with our local newspaper Another View in District 14. We were a thorn in the side of the district leadership which was under the influence of the UFT district rep Mario De Stefano who had built a formidable political machine that controlled local school board elections and jobs including supervisors. We attended every monthly local school board meeting, had allied with the local community and were considered public enemy number one as we attracted people from a bunch of schools.

Whatever schools we were in, we had out-sized influence - I would say in most places the school staffs were fairly young and more willing to hear other points of view. This is fundamental organizing - don't congregate - seed as many schools as you can with organizers. (Shanker and crew used this tactic in the late 50s to organize the UFT - move to more schools. Seeding is a standard tactic of organizing on the left.

We were the only opposition group in the city who believed in local, community organizing and were known throughout the schools in district 14 through our newsletter which was widely distributed (and suppressed by UFT chapter leaders and principals).

We also had allied with teachers around the city and had formed The Independent Delegates at the Delegate Assembly with a monthly newsletter given out there that challenged the Shanker and Unity leadership. This was also a clever organizing tactic - we didn't push a caucus or our group but made this an open group to any delegate and chapter leader --- and we attracted people. This was some of the best written material coming from opposition in the UFT that I've read -- too bad I lost most of it in the Sandy storm.

Thus, by the spring of 1975 we had begun attracting support at the DA with our questions and motions. Organizing 101 -- use the institutional gathering places to organize - (a lesson I tried numerous times to get into the heads of MORE leaders but to no avail - use the DA as a tool and organize an independent group not formally tied to the caucus.)

This is an important pre-cursor for the events in the fall of '75 and we played a role, though I wouldn't pat ourselves on the backs as being the prime movers in the resistance -- the rank and file which was not exactly left drove that engine - and unless corralled by the leadership, threatened to get out of control- and there was the Shanker genius - getting control of that situation and using the strike as a bludgeon - against us - and Unity has used the strike against the membership since then.

Another View, the Independent Delegates and other branches  attracted socialist/activist New Left people, who rejected the old Soviet model of communism and its bulwark the American Communist Party -

The old left which was represented by the long-time opposition group Teachers Action Caucus (TAC) - mostly high school based -- a group that had gone into the schools during  the 1968 strike and had been branded scabs by the Unity leadership, which hurt them in their organizing, but they still were managing to attract a sizable group of people from the old left, mostly older teachers high school teachers or younger red diaper babies who had allegiance to their parents' party.

So there was an official caucus - TAC and us - a loose confederation of independents and small local groups.

The events of 1975 helped shape the various strands of the opposition for the next two decades - again another story for another time.

Anyway, due to my political action in the UFT on the local and citywide level, I was a target and my chapter leader who was also a lawyer and hated my politics and was aligned with Unity, took full advantage.

I was running for re-election as the school delegate to the DA - and the chapter leader decided he would benefit if he got me out of the DA and could win favor with the local UFT leadership.

So he recruited a very good candidate to run against me - she was popular and had been chapter leader -- the major attack was I was too radical -- it was a sort of Biden/Bernie contest - and some of the same arguments raised against Bernie were raised against me - too radical and didn't rep the true interests of the staff. Most people thought I didn't have a chance.

I was not well-known personally by many on the staff, which I found rather cliquish and had a hard time penetrating.

I had come from another much younger staffed school in 1970 where we socialized a lot and I also had become radicalized in the past few years and was not shy in expressing my opinions. This staff was older, more conservative and didn't party much and many blanched at my politics. I also was arrogant about education and teaching and felt I was a hot shot teacher - and it took me a few years to calm down.

The school had divided lunch hours and various sub-units -- very cliquish - I was still one of the newer teachers - we had seen drastic cuts in staff over the time I was there as tenements were knocked down -  we went from up to 7 classes on the lower grades to 3 classes and from 4 or 5 on the upper grades to 3 classes on each grade. And some austerity had already crept in over the past few years.

I had certainly offended many people with my politics, especially on race where I was an advocate for parents and community -  though I learned later how many people in the school I didn't really know well - agreed with me.

I was desperate to win because there were so few voices of opposition to Shanker (I had only recently gotten my voice and began to stand up to Shanker), though we were getting organized and my group was attracting followers in the DA.

I ran a strong campaign
So I spent every spare moment I had campaigning around the school that spring. I even had a plan - who I was going to talk to that day and what I was going to say. And I had the support of Another View where weekly meetings helped me understand the issues and formulate responses.

The campaign was one of the best, though wrenching, experiences in terms of organizing at the ground level of the work place. I put out comprehensive statements on what we needed to fix in our union and in our school system. I presented a vision, a radical vision but a vision. There was also a religious Jewish/ Catholic/Christian element in the school - and I was clearly not a god faring person so that played a role in some opposition to me from religious quarters -- I could tell from how some people reacted to me.

My opponent presented herself as a decent person, great teacher and a conservative voice. One of her main arguments was that she lived in the city not far from the DA and could get to the meetings.

I insisted on a debate - and later people told me how I had won them over in that debate with my extensive knowledge of the issues. Though one of my erstwhile "friends" told me he agreed with me on everything but was voting against me and hoping I would lose so he could use my loss and his role in it to try to get a position at the District office. Nice.

A tie vote
Remember - for delegates only teachers vote - no paras or guidance or other out of class personnel - so there were less than 40 people voting. A tie meant it wasn't over.

When the election ended up in a tie it was a victory of sorts for me. One vote was in question - the guy wasn't listed as a UFT member so his vote was put aside. But the chapter leader knew he had convinced the guy to vote against me so he wanted that vote to count and make me lose but word came back from the UFT the teacher had not signed up yet and his vote didn't count - saved by the bell. (Years later I used to drive him to school and he told me how the chapter leader lied to him about my positions.)

A second election with another tie vote
The election was re-scheduled for the last week of school - June 1975, with little notice on the horizon of the catastrophe to come after the summer, which gave me more opportunity to campaign since our group saw some warning signs. I called for the union to make a strong stand.

I asked the election committee to allow everyone to vote - even absentees. This turned out to save me as one of my supporters was in the hospital the day before election day and one of my other supporters offered to go and get her sealed ballot on a Sunday night. The election ended up in a second tie and that vote save me - even if the idea of voting from a sick bed would have been disallowed by the UFT if a protest were made.

No one had budged in the 2nd campaign. This time I had expected to win and was so disappointed I asked for a third election immediately and threatened to pull out when the election committee decided to wait until September because the election had so galvanized the school politically they felt everyone was weary - I didn't want the election hanging over my head for the summer. But my supporters convinced me to stay in.

The September third election, and a strike vote
As I reported in Part 1 we were hit between the eyes on the first day back with massive cuts to the staff - thirteen excessed where I would have been next if there was one more - after 8 years of teaching. (My grade on the teaching exam helped save me.) The district decided to get rid of all guidance counselors and our guy had been in the school since his days as a teacher twenty years before. He had been part of the fabric of the school and we rarely saw him again. District 14 didn't have guidance counselors back for decades.

I finally get elected
The union meeting on the first days back was intense and there was a massive change in attitude and I was elected by a wide margin.

Even my conservative chapter leader had become a militant and we voted for a strike despite knowing about the two for one penalties. He did a great job in organizing people to go to the big rally at BOE HQ at 110 Livingston Street where Shanker said we won't go back until we all go back before we marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall. He led a strong daily picket line and we were united for the first time - for a week at least. At times we were the only two on the line. When the settlement came I'm pretty sure he voted the party line and after that the militancy died down as people adapted quickly to the loss of preps, the larger class sizes and the cuts in the school days on Mondays and Fridays.

A group decided to have wine and cheese parties every Friday at 2:15 and I was invited to those and began to feel part of the staff for the first time. The cut school days and preps lasted for two years. Many schools were closed and building sold. Mulgrew pointed out that teachers got their raises.

After Burn
The AFT convention in Hawaii:  The Case Against Shanker
That summer - of 1975 - was memorable in many ways. I had been going to AFT conventions -- in 1974 in Toronto when Shanker took

over the national organization. Three of us from Another View/School Workers  - Lew Friedman, Bob Norman and myself decided to go to the 1975 AFT convention in Hawaii by driving cross country in my car and leaving it at a contact's house in Oakland. Our group produced a pamphlet called "The Case Against Shanker" to hand out to the delegates. Unity Caucus was more than shocked to see us show up and we had a blast meeting other delegates and activists from around the nation. And Unity Caucus enjoyed the best junket ever at the expense of the membership.

My wife flew out to meet me after the convention and we spent the next two weeks touring the islands and another two weeks driving back cross country after camping in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon and visiting Carol's cousins in Texas where he was serving in the army as a dentist.

In the fall through the strike and after there was a real sense of growing the opposition in a united way - but then came the splitters and the sectarians which killed that idea - recent events in MORE were deja vu all over again. We'll explore further in Part 3 and 4.


  1. I'm getting eye strain reading these. lol. Seriously though thank you Norm. It is insightful.


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