Monday, January 14, 2019

UFT Elections Part 3: Something Old. Something New (Action)

In this, my third installment of the 2019 UFT elections -and the groups that make them- I'll be focussing on the New Action Caucus (NAC). I had intended to do a lot of research before writing this up but then realized the date and wanted to get it all done quick. Aside from the ruling Unity Caucus, NAC is the longest running group within the UFT. In fact, they are the second longest continually existing caucus in the history of the UFT.

The caucus was founded by a group of progressive minded teachers in the mid 1980s and, according to their own website, is rooted in the activist spirit of the 1970s NYCBOE. Some call them small but small implies ineffective and, election after election, New Action has proven themselves to be very effective.  I have always thought of them as a lean, clear headed, progressively minded definitively pro teacher caucus.

They are always very adroit at making good, solid political decisions that allow them to put their voice across. In the mid 90s, NAC was part of the only "Vote No" campaign that actually won. Many (including themselves) credit NAC with leading the charge. By late 90s/early ought UFT elections, New Action was earning over 11,000 presidential votes (with a full slate). In the following years, they ran joint slates with the Unity Caucus. That decision, and the rather blistering attacks they received from other opposition groups because of it, resulted in a leaned out caucus.

But a caucus that managed to make a difference. Have you ever read "The Organizer?". The UFT Organizing Committee was formed around a NAC/Unity joint endeavor.  During their time on the inside, NAC members and Unity members would visit schools and NAC members would counsel teachers on how to fight back (as professionals) against difficult administrators.

And, like Solidarity, New Action has managed to survive. In 2007, they were predicted to "fade into obscurity". Here we are, eleven years later and the members of that caucus have never been more respected than they are today. NAC members aren't they type to run for the cameras whenever the press is in the room. They don't go to extremes to make their point and they don't stop the business of teaching and learning in order to advocate for their world views. They have managed to find a balance through all of that and to use that balance to bring some positive affect to the UFT.

They're saying for that this 2019 election, the opposition within the UFT has never been in worse shape. I would certainly agree that emotions are high. There are many voiced suspicions among the people who comprise some of the caucuses and tensions are running very high (I, myself, can't swing a dead cat without hitting someone who is upset with me over something, I have wrote over the past few days. Everyone, in every caucus, wants to be right.  And every caucus thinks they have "the" solution. For folks within the opposition, if someone works with you on something they're "great. awesome." If they work for an opponent, then they're a "sellout" or "running around pretending". If they stay away from the frey, well then they "just don't know" or "simply don't get it". This is the suspicious nature of the opposition groups and, especially in 2019, it's fairly ugly -probably the ugliest thing about being involved with the UFT. It is, however, worth mentioning, and will bare repeating, that I have never once heard this type of suspicious ugliness advertised by the people who run the New Action Caucus. These are smart, serious union people who, at this point in their career are friendly and, under the 2019 circumstances, even sanguine. They will be running, probably a limited slate, this year and it will be worth researching some of the names on the slate and consider giving them a vote.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

UFT Elections Part 2: Nec Hannibal ad Portas

In this, my second installment of the 2019 UFT elections -and the groups that make them- I'll be focussing on the Solidarity Caucus. There may be lots of people who roll their eyes at the thought of having to read about Solidarity. In fact, that caucus has survived the most blistering trial by fire I have ever seen. Many of their members have been publicly ridiculed to the point of almost castigated -as individuals- by other UFT activists. Despite the many direct attacks at their personal reputations, and in the face of consistent rejections by members of other opposition caucuses, they have somehow survived and are still here, ready to stand for election again.

Established in late 2014 Solidarity grew out of a battle between Francesco Portelos and the people who ran the MORE Caucus. Undeterred from the falling out, Portelos stepped out and formed his own caucus.  By 2016, and to the surprise of many, they actually fielded a partial slate and stood for election. They finished third out of three but that this was behind the mighty Unity Caucus and a combined MORE and "New Action Caucus" ticket that included the famous and vote-catching teacher unionist Arthur Goldstein. Since then, MORE has been greatly fractured, Arthur Goldstein is no longer supporting them and New Action is running on its own line. As this has happened, Solidarity's numbers have grown. They enter the 2019 election with a playing field that includes both the shrinking of other caucuses and the experience of one election already under their belt.

And, as opposed to other opposition groups,  they have a candidate at the top of their ticket. And one with quite a background story.  Lydia Howrilka was an untenured teacher when the DoE fired her for running afoul of her principal's good will. Lydia, believing her rights had been grievously violated, fought back as hard as she could. (I'm not sure if these two facts are related but after almost two years of Lydia not giving up,  the department A) rehired her and B) ended the employment of the principal who had fired her). The experience left her with a strong sense of empathy for both teachers and students who had been mistreated. It also left her with a deep commitment to develop into the best classroom teacher she could be.

Other candidates are running as well. Here is a complete list of their slate so far, along with a link to volunteer to run with them. At least some of these names have already earned respect within the UFT. They are all working educators. None are activists. Few have been in the system for less than five years.

Because of tensions with its founder, this group has been ridiculed and castgated within the UFT to almost no end by each and everyone one of the other caucuses. Whenever somebody mentions their name, they refer to it as "FP" or "Portelos" or just "his caucus" instead of calling it the Solidarity Caucus. I think this is both disrespectful and near sighted. The caucus is made up of many experienced classroom teachers. They have included people from all parts of the political spectrum and now, in their fifth year,  have managed to continue to exists and, in fact, grow. Whether you like them or hate the, any serious UFTer who doesn't take this caucus seriously, does so at their own political peril.

Yet the hatred and mistrust for Portelos continues to be the lens through which other UFTer use to understand Solidarity. I will make no judgements about Portelos here (I will, however, remind readers that he and I have been friends for six years now and, in fact, greatly bonded with each other during the War Against Teachers when both the union and the opposition caucuses were uninterested in helping teachers who had put under undue pressure by the department). During his initial struggle with the department, Portelos was so assertive that it prompted me write the experience up and to relate him with the Carthaginian general Hannibal (the military leader who maurauded through Italy for more than a decade while the Roman Army stood helplessly by) and I joked that the old expression Hannibal ad Portas could be reused as "Portelos ad Portas" for the Bloomberg DoE (a DoE, by the way, that seems so distant from what it is today). That's how tough Francesco is, so I get that people would be concerned about him in the UFT political sphere.

But the truth is, Portelos has not been at the helm of this caucus for some time now. "Hannibal" is no longer at the gates, people. So you can all chill out and relax. This caucus is now run by other experienced teachers. It follows its own agenda, one that does not quite match Francesco Portelos' and, if what looks like is going to happen this year actually happens, Solidarity is about to become the second largest caucus in the UFT -and the number two in vote count this year. I respectfully suggest to others in the opposition (and in Unity) that it may time to take the Solidarity Caucus a bit more seriously.

I do. There is a chance they will finish right behind Solidarity this year. And while this all depends on how well they can organize and how adroit they are in selling themselves to UFTers,  it will be interesting to see how they do.

It will be a little while until I write about the second oldest caucus in the UFT (the New Action Caucus). This is because I have a bit of research to do. But i'll be back next week for the final two posts in he series.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

UFT Elections Part 1: The Retards of Progress

In this, my first installment of the 2019 UFT elections -and the groups that make them- I'll be focussing on the MORE Caucus. Future editions will focus on the other caucuses but I though I would dispense with the least serious of them first so that I can focus on the serious business of teaching and of unionism in later editions.

I talk about the seriousness of teaching and of unionism because both are very serious. Teachers are up before the crack of dawn every day. We face the most grueling schedule of any profession and we don't stop working until long after the sun has gone down. If you're outside of New York, they do this for a very small amount of pay. Within New York, however, we are a profession. This 'New York difference" is because we developed a very strong tradition of teacher unionism and this is why it is important as well: Unionism has allowed us to consider ourselves professionals. It has empowered teachers to drag ourselves into the middle class and continues to empower us to strive so that we remain in the middle class during a historical period where many Americans have fallen out of it. For teachers in New York, unionism has made the difference.

And if these two issues -teaching and unionism- are serious, it's worth repeating that this week's caucus -the "movement" of Rank and File educators, has materialized as the least of the bunch. This not because they are some type of joke. They are not. It is because their many missteps have led them to the very back of the line of groups who have made a difference.

Founded in 2010, as an amalgamate of differing left wing groups within the union, the "movement" promised to empower regular rank and file teachers. They promised that, with enough hard work and an honoring of all voices, they would develop into a large broad based coalition caucus that would grow -with regular teachers- to take over the union. The group grew by 2016, embracing open balloting for elections, open committee meetings for each level and two rounds of votes -one at meeting and another through email in order to capture the most amount of voices -the whole while allowing for and working to find agreement with the voices that were not left wing socialists. The results were relatively impressive. They made a good showing in the union elections and won back seats on a committee called the UFT Executive Board.

But there were irresolvable differences just beneath the surface and those differences cost them everything.

At its height, the amalgamate was made up of different groups of activists, many of them (but not all) were fervent believers of progressive ideas.  Some of those folks were comprised of left wing activists. These are folks who would identify themselves as activists first ... and they also came to teaching. Others were outright revolutionary socialists. I respect the presence of outright revolutionaries (from the left or from the right) and I'm happy to be friends with some. These are young (in age or heart) idealists and we all need those folks around. But  some of these folks,  sectarians,  actually stopped teaching to move on to other activist things. One began publicly identifying with  Antifa. Others moved on from the profession to work with their activists groups and related organizations. Of the scant few who remained with teaching (thereby remaining in the MORE caucus), infighting became the favorite flavor fantastique  . They descended into territorialism. Members of one socialist group, who have been around since at least the 1930s, moved to take over the caucus and take it on a hard left turn into issues that were not directly related to teaching in the classroom or in New York. They began employing lies and deception in order to achieve their strategic intra-caucus goals.

And they were committed to these goals! They ended long-standing personal relationships with people who were their friends. They publicly asserted that the union's ruling caucus didn't care about Black Lives Matter (the ruling caucus is, in fact, made up of a great many persons of color, including many West Indian-American and African-American teachers (and many of us are proud to be part  this)). They tried to convince members that Chicago teachers -who lose their jobs if they become ATRs, who enjoy far less health and retirement benefits and who have never heard of Teachers' Choice funds- are better off than are we here in New York. They purged the "MORE Duo" Mike and John, calling them trouble makers for disagreeing with them. They then insisted that anyone from the Independent Community of Educators (ICE) choose between membership in ICE or membership in MORE.  This was how that group has spent their time since 2015.

(Full disclosure; most folks in ICE just ignored them and have retained their membership in both groups anyway. That "I" sure stands for independent).

In 2019 -after nine years of hard work, the "movement" currently has less than 50 members and has almost no one other than left wing socialists and revolutionaries wiling to count themselves among them. That's great if you're a college fraternity or a social organization. Not so good if you're a union (which can be defined as "the set that comprises all the elements ..." (in other words, all of the elements (left and right wing) coming together around a common purpose). At one recent meeting, 40 people showed up. Longstanding members counted less teachers, with the rest being "guests" (activist talk for visiting activist, just there to support).

Outsiders are not even sure if they are aware of their own state of affairs themselves. Recently, when one new members came to a UFT Executive Board meeting to try to introduce a resolution, he found that no MORE members of the EB were there to introduce it on the record for him. They did not even bother attending. Some observers felt that maybe the MORE EB members did not get the memo.  Others speculated that there was no one around to read it. Still others joked that there was probably no one left to write it. They are currently so small, they will not even run a presidential candidate. That is a far cry from where they once were in the political sphere. And it seems as though those who still remain want no one knowing. Says one former member "I really don't know [what they are] anymore. They do everything in secrecy now. How can anyone really know? But their secrecy is obvious now".

You want a union? You have to learn to deal with people you don't agree with. You want a party where no one comes? Alienate, in-fight and purge. That will scare others away quite well.

Please don't be confused by the title of this blog post. I don't throw insults.  MORE is filled with some very smart, savvy and experienced people. To "Retard is "to "delay or hold back in terms of progress, development, or accomplishment". Progress is defined as "forward or onward movement toward a destination". Progress is forever held back missteps. Infighting among other progressives is one. Excluding moderates or conservatives is another. Not realizing how badly you have shot yourself in the foot is still another. These are missteps that  retard of the type of progress that many signed up for with MORE and these setbacks are what MORE will be remembered for most: For the many retards of progress that occurred during their moment in UFT History.