Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Annals of the UFT - On Democracy in the Current and Past UFT Delegate Assembly - Norm Scott

More than 2,000 elected school reps joined the January meeting by phone, a 40-percent increase over participation last spring that undoubtedly reflects a craving for information in circumstances that remain so fluid. However, the UFT delegate assembly was meant to be more than an information session. .... --- Solidarity Caucus Letter of complaint in letter to The Chief, posted on ICE Blog:
March 31, 2021 -- 

My next to last pre-pandemic day in the city before heading back to Rockaway was March 11, 2020 when I attended the last in person UFT Delegate Assembly. Outside the meeting a chapter leader of one of the largest schools in the city told me his school had more cases than the DOE or UFT was admitting to and his complaints to the union were landing on deaf ears and he was thinking of going to the press. (I think he did and those articles put pressure on the DOE and UFT). Earlier that day my wife and I had attended almost empty classes for retirees at 52 Broadway that were cancelled for the rest of the year, it was clear things were going bad. The night before, March 10, we went to a crowded Broadway play - Broadway shut down 3 days later. Schools were shut shortly after though teachers were required to come in the next week without children for "training." Over 70 ended up dying. And the Delegate Assembly has only met remotely since then.

OK, that's some background but the intention here is to open a discussion on democracy at the UFT Delegate Assembly, currently and in the near and distant past. John Lawhead, one of the authors of the Solidarity letter, has been running a UFT history study group which has been fascinating and I've gotten a good handle on how a very democratic institution was turned into what it is today. Look for follow-up posts.

What is the Delegate Assembly?
It consists of the elected chapter leaders and delegates from the schools and functional chapters, where there is a 60-1 ratio, meaning a school with 300 UFT non-functional/classroom chapter members, gets 5 delegates. Large functional chapters get a load, like retirees with 70,000 members, get 300 members of the DA. 
Retiree Advocate running a slate vs Unity in chapter election
I'm working with Retiree Advocate to run a slate against Unity in the upcoming chapter election - if you are a retiree and want to run let me know - we won't win and Unity will claim winner take all despite us getting around 20% of the vote - which in a democratic institution would give us 60 delegates - we actually asked Unity for a measly 5 seats to at least represent that 20% and they said NO.

How many delegates?
Do the math and you can see there are probably over 4000 people who can attend a DA but in person the room only holds a max of 850, with a few breakout rooms.

But the reality is that there are often less than 600 in person - for from a quorum which makes meetings technically illegal, but who's counting? And Unity caucus people naturally dominate the crowd, especially when you add in retirees even if only 100 attend.

A key feature of the DAs, especially since Randi Weingarten took over have been long filibuster president reports that often take up to an hour and eat up time.

So by its very nature, DAs are undemocratic in practice. The pandemic has changed things and the union has had to adapt. 

The current situation is that many more people are attending the DA - I think I saw some 2000 at the January DA. Imagine zoom meetings with thousands and electronic voting which they have no way of controlling.

How do you do democracy in that environment? Most importantly, the number of eyes on the DA is itself more democratic and that has made the union leadership very nervous, even though they can easily shut people they don't want to hear from out. But I think the transparency is a bigger threat to them and I bet they are dying to get back to normal smaller DAs. But they have figured out a way to restrict democracy even further.

Solidarity Caucus:

During the past few months, delegates have attempted to bring school issues arising from the pandemic to the floor for debate. They submitted resolutions for deliberation on the blended-learning agreements and the ongoing negotiations between the UFT and the city over evaluation of Teachers providing remote instruction.

Such resolutions have been crowded out in favor of what amounts to business as usual: matters of primarily symbolic significance, expressions of solidarity and various commemorations. At the two most-recent meetings, wholesale endorsements of dozens of candidates for the City Council were bundled into single resolutions of 20 or more and moved to the front of the resolutions period.

Last May the UFT leadership brought a resolution to amend the procedural rules for delegate assemblies without debate. The new rules left delegates unable to raise points of order or offer amendments to resolutions. Meetings cannot be extended past the time for adjournment without a vote to suspend the rules. These changes have given the assemblies the air of a perfunctory proceeding rather than a meeting for serious deliberation.
Well, I never thought the DA was ever a place of serious deliberation and I will get deeper into that issue in a future post.

The question coming next year is what will DAs look like? Obviously a blend of in person and zoom makes sense so any delegate can attend and there will be demands to do it that way and can the UFT leadership resist those demands?

The Solidarity letter has a point on the use of technology to improve democracy:

phone-conferencing technology could provide the means for any participant to raise a point of order, offer an amendment or make a motion to extend the meeting. This would simply require having operators put members into the queue for the question period.

The UFT's elected delegates deserve a voice in matters that leadership has direct control over, including agreements with the city. The delegate assembly should have its two-way communication restored in a manner befitting the union's democratic aspirations.

Is it worth trying to democratize the DA given all the other undemocratic issues in the UFT? 

James Eterno who had a hand in writing the letter says: 

We have now exhausted our internal union remedies. It could be the right time to go outside the union to attempt to get full democracy at UFT meetings.

My question is whether given the overall lack of democracy in the UFT where the Unity Caucus has been in power for 60 years - in essence the UFT has a one party system, is a campaign calling for reforms of the DA worth the effort?

AnonymousOn the ICE blog a regular readers, Shelley commented in a very astute way ...

I applaud the effort. The anti-democratic and autocratic methods of the UFT need to be exposed.

But this letter wastes most of its paragraphs with favorable descriptions of how the UFT has increased participation in union business during a crisis that has prevented in-person assemblies and challenged normal democratic procedures.

And the remedies it seeks are neither specific enough nor extensive enough to make any real difference in how the UFT operates.

The high-handed schemes of the UFT are anti-union and have undermined the essential purposes of our union--better pay, benefits, and working conditions for our members.

The UFT has exploited the pandemic crisis to consolidate power, not only with anti-democratic ploys at assemblies and town halls but by making back-room deals, thus alienating and demoralizing teachers and diminishing dignity and respect for our members from our employees and from the public we serve.
These autocratic methods are not limited to the delegate assemblies and town halls. They are employed at the school level to ensure the Unity caucus of the UFT continues to hold monopoly power, a power it has maintained and wielded, more and more, not to serve its members but for self-preservation, for half a century.

Mulgrew has weakened the current agreement that was collectively bargained by the UFT and weakened the prospects for negotiating fair agreements in the future. Other unions should be concerned because the UFT is likely to take the lead in pattern bargaining when a new mayor is elected.

I agree with much of what Shelley says. I will address some historical issues related to the restriction of democracy at the DA over the 60 years of the UFT, starting with Albert Shanker's strangling the institution almost from the inception of the UFT.

The big question is can the UFT ever be democratized and if not then what?

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