Saturday, February 4, 2023

The UFT Teach-in. Part 3: A Briliant Stroke

This has been adapted from a thread I wrote on Twitter.  You can read that by clicking here and tapping 'show thread' 

In order to more fully describe the flex, I should probably explain why this teach-in was such a smart move…

πŸ©πŸ‘‡Part 3. A brilliant stroke πŸ‘‡πŸ©

Of course what happened was a teach-in. But beneath the surface, what occurred wasn’t about a teach-in at all. The Labor Movement in America has long been on a terrible decline. In New York, those who have worked toward its resurgence have been slowed by laws, decisions, contracts or cultures that have prevented unions from ever reaching step 1 (I talk about the three steps here). 

One example about being slowed by skewed law is Sam Amato, a unionist who was fired from Starbucks. His firing was legal here in New York State. Had his colleagues not staged a walk-out in support of him, we wouldn't know his name today. 

Here is an example about how culture slows hopes of a resurgent union movement; specifically how Amazon tried to discredit Chris Smalls, hoping to discourage unionism there (I would have broke. Chris Smalls is a superhero).  

NY Teachers have their own law: The Taylor Law. It's better than the law they had before 1968, but it is so harsh that *any* service that would otherwise normally be performed cannot stop without it being against the law. This means that the UFT can’t even call for a work action where all teachers stop grading HW at night w/out it being illegal. This frustrates any notion of resurgence. Here is what the very radical Workers' World published about the Taylor Law's "Work to Rule" language:

The Taylor Law in New York State prohibits public employee unions from conducting strikes, or even job actions like “work to rule.” Violation of the law leads to fines, sanctions against the union and even jail for union leaders. But there is no pressure on employers to bargain fairly with employees.

Some folks may say "screw it, let's break the law" (and, let's be clear; my heart is with some folks!). But 
for the first time since Al Shanker ran it, the UFT found a way to hold a perfectly legal, powerful city-wide worksite-based job action.  This happened during the workday; at the work site and in hundreds of schools across the city. They threaded all of those needles.  To the trained eye, what I just described is next to impossible in New York. The whole system is designed to *prevent* union members from coming together at all. 

And even if they do, over a job action? At work? During the hours covering the general work day? This is next to impossible here. The powers that be have carefully crafted an entire apparatus that keeps teacher unions' hands tied. 

Yet UFT organizers found a way to do it anyway.  

If we had met to discuss a strike, this work action would be illegal. If we had discussed a sickout or other work stoppage, this would have been illegal. But, with the strategy of teachers teaching teachers during work, the  UFT organizers found a legal middle ground where they could stage a work-based action that *also* fulfilled its duties to the law. 

Management didn’t see that coming. 
Most of us didn’t. 
Some in oppo still don’t. 
But it happened.

This is a precedent. This is a brand new language of unionism. It isn't as harsh as some of us would like to act but it was legal, which means we (or any union) can do it again. No reasonable manager in any industry could stop something like this from happening.  Other locals in other industries are going to find ways to emulate this *perfectly legal and new strategy of finding (legal) ways to perform wide scale job actions (legally). 

But that’s only part of what actually happened on Monday … 

It’s said that when James Madison read the decision in Marbury vs. Madison in 1803, he paced up and down the president’s office growling “wrong wrong wrong, but the life of me, I can’t understand why”. Madison was a crankly, but brilliant person who wrote the constitution and most of the Federalist papers but the decision was so brilliant, even he didn't understand it at first. 

That's because the power of that decision lied in its consequences. 

In denying itself the power to issue a writ of Mandamus, the US Supreme Court was able to do something far more powerful: it got to be the one to tell Congress “No”. It was a brilliant stroke. 

Something somewhat similar has happened here.In performing the innocent and harmless act of a teach-in, more than 500 principals were informed by their staff that it was happening —and the teachers and their union were the ones informing them. (Again, this happened across all 5 boroughs. 73% of all UFT members out in Queens were part of it. 

This is subtle but it’s a profound shift in the dynamic between the UFT and the City of New York and the DOE. Literally all of the rules and laws and customs are designed to stop exactly that from happening city-wide. But it happened anyway. It was legal, professional, ethical and honorable.

Yes. Last Monday, tens of thousands of New York City’s Smartest freaked out their bosses by teaching each other; as a union thing. And it was coolπŸ’™). 

Generally, when you ask to do something, your will to do it is dependent on the will of another person to grant you permission to do it. But if you inform a person you're going to do something, well your will doesn't depend on theirs so much, does it?  Just as in Marbury, The flex was in the power of being the ones to say so.

Navigating the legalities of getting there was smart enough. But convincing tens of thousands of teachers to say “we *are* doing this” as well? That was a brilliant stroke. 

And somewhere between 17,500 and 34,000 thousand teachers teaching teachers, and the union brothers and sisters who love and support them, allowed Mike Mulgrew to toughen up his language and flex through the press. This headline you see here isn't power. It’s strength (step 3). 

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The UFT Teach-in. Part 2: The Flex


This has been adapted from a thread on Twitter.  You can read the second part here.


To understand the flex, we should chat briefly about the strength of any union. Generally, strong unions follow a 3-step process. 1. They grow their numbers. They do this by getting a lot of members to join together over something. That brings them power, so 2: They grow their power. This power lies *somewhat in tens of thousands of members wanting & talking abt the same thing but it *mainly lies in management seeing this and becoming concerned. 

That fear is institutional, not personal. But it lies at the heart of the union’s new found power. Check out step  2 in action. Take the 1.3% that I mentioned in my earlier post as an example. This 1.3% means that, whatever  happens moving forward, the union now has 1000 more *active* foot solders within its ranks than it did before this happened. In a labor movement on the wane, any management would see this as an outlier and that management would be concerned. That’s step 2. 

Step 3 is simple. After having earned that power, 3. Become strong. After a while, a union begins to exert its power by getting great deals for all of its members. For unions, these great deals come in the form of great contracts. This is when all the magic happens.  Most of our rights came from a contract signed in 1965.  We didn’t even strike that year πŸ˜‚!! πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚That’s not exactly power.  That's strength. That’s rule 3.


Now management is part of the trained eye. Please know this! They usually do their best to foil a union at step 1. They do this by pitting teachers against teachers over a copy machine or some overtime, or by keeping friends away from each other on lunch break or by harassing, retaliating or scaring the loud teacher so much that the other teachers will watch and will become too fearful to gather for a union event (sound familiar?). 

The list of their tactics they use goes on and on and I refer to them as doenuts because, frankly, there is no other thing to say about them. But that's them stopping us at step 1. That's the typical dynamic in NYC schools. 

Every so often, though, a union does reach step 1: They do find a way to grow their numbers. This doesn’t  happen often these days but when it does, it means something special is afoot: It means that management’s first line of defense has been swept away by the tide of upset employees. Let's be real here; who the hell cares about getting trouble at their job if their job isn't even putting food on the damn table? 

Management never realizes this until it is too late. The bosses never realize something is up until it's just too late. The DOE is no different than any other management when it comes to this. On January 26 (at 6 in the evening!) the  DOE OLR sent this missive out to all principals in NYC (click to enlarge from the Twitter version of this post)

Important to note that they sent this five days before the event took place and only *after* learning that 1000 teachers had already  showed up to be trained to go back to their chapters and do this unionism thing. 

That shook them enough for an after hour email to every Principal in NYC.  

Each principal is assigned their own school attorney. The attorneys could have provided this advice and in fact, much of a school attorney's day is spent offering advice just like this about employee rules and laws. That this email came straight from OLR hints at the urgency with which it was sent. They didn’t have time for proper channels! So they just sent it out to everyone they could. That urgency came partly from the late arriving realization that something involving a very large number of teachers was about to happen and that they could not stop it. 

And therin lies the flex: The union grew its numbers of active members across all 5 boroughs and the DOE was powerless to stop them. It's now documented that 1000 school based union leaders were christened last week. Those 1000 members then turned and christened between  17,5000 and 34,000 members into dignified, honorable, legal unionism this week.  And management could not stop it.  In fact, it all happened right in front of the DOE's eyes -and all they could muster to stop it was an urgent, after hours email. 

This reaction was on school levels, too. At least one school in LIC, Queens, opted out of the teach-in because, as the chapter leader put it, “the principal got an email that there about this whole thing so , yeah, we are staying away from that”. (Quick side note: This is scary business and most of us who would have held the teach-in anyway fully understand this concern).

Getting management to react in this way helps unions grow their power. The trained eyes saw the doe react. The trained eye knows what it means when you get your opponent to react: it means you have that power. 

That DOE email helped the UFT reach step 2. We grew our power. (They, literally, helped us do it. (This also happened in that school out in LIC: those teachers went home and saw colleagues from all across the city did what their chapter leader said shouldn’t be done. There is power in that, too). Because that same chapter leader sent an email out to all members the very next day assuring folks at that one school that they would find a way to hold the teach in sometime this week. (That Chapter Leader's email isn't part of the flex. It is a result of the flex).

Now, in order to more fully describe this flex, I am going to have to explain why this teach-in was such a smart move. Given the legal, political and cultural environment surrounding NY schools these days,  I'm going to have to explain the brilliance behind the idea of a teach-in. Look for that explanation in a few short days. 

The UFT Teach-in. Part 1: The Untrained Eye

This has been adapted from a thread on Twitter.  You can read the original thread here. 

To the untrained eye, it sure looked like the NYC teacher union held a teach-in on Monday. While the final tally isn’t in yet, sources inside the UFT say that teachers in more than 500 schools participated in the event. 500! For proof that this is remarkable, consider this: Sources in the DOE have long mentioned that the average school in NYC serves app 800 students. Rough estimate:a school that size is served by been 70-100 staffers who are also UFT members. If only 1/2 of each staff participated, then 17,500 people were part of this teach-in.

For more proof that the event was remarkable, consider that a city-wide event such as this hasn’t occurred since the days Albert Shanker ran the union (that’s 3 UFT presidents, 4 decades 8 US presidents ago. It’s been that long). This was remarkable.

That untrained eye may have noticed news stories covering the event. Here’s one:

And here is another. It is noteworthy that teachers having lunch together made the news.

It is also important to remember. Lunch … will make the news, if you can get enough teachers there.

That the event has garnered enough attention to be covered by the news is one thing. But the depictions coming from the news outlets bare mentioning as well. There is something about teachers coming together that captures the imagination. Here is one example of this that City and State chose to publish:

“People at this moment are paying attention to the world around them and we see a lot of workers in motion,” said Amy Arundell, UFT borough representative for Queens and an organizer for Monday’s teach-ins. “People are saying I want to be in motion too, I want to participate in my own survival as a worker and as an educator and make things better for myself and for my students.” 

In the weeks leading up to the event, more than 1,000 teachers had volunteered their own time to be trained on how to conduct a teach-in back at their schools. This should be mentioned here too.

That is 1.3% of the entire NYC teaching force. They were so fed up about teacher pay that they stood up to be leaders (not participants, but leaders) back at their schools and lead their colleagues in the all too familiar struggle for a fair wage. The untrained eye might have missed that fact, but it doesn’t really matter. When between 17,500 & 34,000 UFT members or more (including 73% of all members out in Queens) participate in a teach in for a contract for teachers, folks notice. They notice perfectly well.

What the untrained eye saw is perfectly accurate. But there are trained eyes in NYC politics too. Those trained eye saw something very different on Monday. And only those trained eyes know full well what actually occurred. I'll talk about that in Part 2.

Click here for the blog version of Part 2. The Flex