Dissident Caucus Aims to Give NYC Teachers Union M.O.R.E.

James Cersonsky July 17, 2012

Members of New York's Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE) turned out to support striking Con Ed workers in early July. Founded this year, MORE plans to challenge the reign of the Unity caucus in next year's union elections.

You’ve got to stop think­ing about edu­ca­tion as a monop­oly,” says for­mer New York City edu­ca­tion Chan­cel­lor Joel Klein in the doc­u­men­tary, The Incon­ve­nient Truth behind Wait­ing for Super­man. Klein’s anti-monop­oly stance — based on a port­fo­lio mod­el of edu­ca­tion that runs on school turn­arounds and choice — goes hand-in-hand with the monop­oly that he and his suc­ces­sors under May­or Michael Bloomberg have had over school reform in the country’s largest urban dis­trict since the instate­ment of may­oral con­trol in 2001. In the last decade, the Bloomberg admin­is­tra­tion has closed 140 schools and opened 589 new ones, many of which are pri­vate­ly oper­at­ed small schools” that direct­ly replace neigh­bor­hood schools.

The Uni­ty Cau­cus of New York’s Unit­ed Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (UFT) also runs a monop­oly — or so dis­si­dent cau­cus­es have argued over the course of Unity’s unchecked reign since the UFT’s found­ing in 1960. The newest oppo­si­tion is the Move­ment of Rank-and-File Edu­ca­tors (MORE), which was found­ed this year and will vie for union lead­er­ship in next year’s elections.

In Feb­ru­ary, MORE lead­ers host­ed a con­fer­ence attend­ed by more than 200 teach­ers with work­shops on union his­to­ry, chap­ter lead­er­ship, and broad­er issues like high-stakes test­ing and school fund­ing. After a found­ing meet­ing with 70 teach­ers and allies in March, the cau­cus set­tled on a name and a mis­sion state­ment.

MORE’s oppo­si­tion to Uni­ty lead­er­ship cov­ers a range of issues: the incum­bents’ sup­port for may­oral con­trol under Ran­di Wein­garten in 2001 and again (though less stri­dent­ly) under cur­rent Pres­i­dent Michael Mul­grew in 2009; its agree­ment to mer­it pay in 2005; and a weak stand” on school clos­ings, char­ters, co-loca­tions, class-size reduc­tion and testing.

Rank-and-file dis­si­dence in the UFT is as old as Unity’s incum­ben­cy. New Action was the pri­ma­ry oppo­si­tion cau­cus for two decades until 2003, when it reached a détente with Wein­garten that effec­tive­ly killed its mil­i­tan­cy. Two new­er cau­cus­es — the Inde­pen­dent Com­mu­ni­ty of Edu­ca­tors (ICE) and Teach­ers for a Just Con­tract (TJC) — filled the void. Both rep­re­sent­ed dif­fer­ent ele­ments with­in the UFT: ICE mem­bers were old­er and pre­dom­i­nant­ly white; TJC was younger and more focused on direct action.

In 2005, ICE and TJC com­bined forces in response to that year’s con­tract, which insti­tut­ed mer­it pay and absen­tee teach­ers reserves, or ATRs. Before 2005, teach­ers who were laid off due to school clos­ings were slot­ted by the city’s Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion into vacan­cies in oth­er schools. With the new con­tract, teach­ers lost senior­i­ty place­ment rights and had to apply for new jobs while remain­ing on the DOE’s pay­roll. Despite wide­spread out­cry from teach­ers, the ICE-TJC oppo­si­tion still lost the 2007 and 2010 union elec­tions by large margins.

This year, UFT lead­ers signed onto a new eval­u­a­tion sys­tem requir­ing 40% of teacher rat­ings to be based on local or state stu­dent tests. The union was under pres­sure from offi­cials to agree to a greater role for high-stakes test­ing in order to restore $58 mil­lion in fed­er­al Race to the Top funding.

MORE has tak­en an uncon­di­tion­al stand against test­ing, join­ing hun­dreds of oth­er orga­ni­za­tions nation­wide in sign­ing the Nation­al Res­o­lu­tion on High-Stakes Test­ing. In order to reverse cor­po­rate reform — a tall order giv­en fed­er­al pres­sures and the city’s deter­mi­na­tion to shed its schools’ work­forces — the cau­cus envi­sions a new union­ism based on mem­ber orga­niz­ing and wide-scale com­mu­ni­ty partnership.

Right now the major­i­ty of mem­bers who get angry respond by tun­ing the union out,” says Kit Wain­er, a for­mer TJC mem­ber who has been teach­ing for 24 years. That’s the prob­lem that we’re strug­gling against. Through edu­ca­tion, through orga­niz­ing our own actions, hope­ful­ly we can change it.”

Unlike pre­vi­ous cau­cus­es, MORE is an alliance of dis­si­dent teach­ers and teacher-com­mu­ni­ty groups. It includes the Grass­roots Edu­ca­tion Move­ment (GEM), which runs forums and protests around school turn­arounds and has attend­ed vir­tu­al­ly every city turn­around hear­ing since its for­ma­tion in 2005, and the New York Col­lec­tive of Rad­i­cal Edu­ca­tors (NYCoRE), which orga­nizes around social jus­tice prin­ci­ples through meet­ings, peer-led con­fer­ences, and inquiry-to-action study groups.

Part of the work of trans­form­ing the UFT is not to be a union all about bar­gain­ing but also a union that pro­motes a dis­cus­sion of ped­a­gogy that’s rich­er and appeals to com­mu­ni­ty,” says Sal­ly Lee, a for­mer ele­men­tary school teacher and now the exec­u­tive direc­tor of Teach­ers Unite, a non-prof­it that has run orga­niz­ing train­ers for teach­ers and is cur­rent­ly col­lab­o­rat­ing with the Urban Youth Col­lec­tive on Dig­ni­ty in Schools,” a cam­paign for restora­tive jus­tice to stop the school-to-prison pipeline.

It can be about the dis­ap­pear­ance of black and Lati­no edu­ca­tors,” adds Rosie Fras­cel­la, a leader of NYCoRE’s NYQueer” cam­paign for queer jus­tice and a for­mer orga­niz­er with SEIU who com­pares her expe­ri­ence with SEIU’s top-down” union­ism to the UFT. It can be fight­ing stop-and-frisk pol­i­cy. It can be about huge ques­tions of pover­ty and hous­ing and healthcare.”

Uni­ty incum­bents do have their own com­mu­ni­ty part­ner­ships and strate­gies to buffer school turn­arounds. Togeth­er with the Bronx’s Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lab­o­ra­tive to Improve Dis­trict 9 Schools, the union start­ed the Lead Teacher Pro­gram in 2004 to attract teach­ers to the dis­trict and cul­ti­vate peer sup­port. The Coali­tion for Edu­ca­tion­al Jus­tice, a city­wide com­pos­ite of com­mu­ni­ty groups, has fought along­side the union to pre­serve free stu­dent Metro­Cards and school dol­lars in the city’s budget.

Last month, the union won its suit against the city for turn­ing around 24 schools under the pre­tense of replac­ing them with new schools,” but real­ly, as the union argued, as a maneu­ver to remove half their staffs. MORE has come out against this legal strat­e­gy. Even if the law­suits suc­ceed,” a May pam­phlet read, they will mere­ly delay the clos­ings and leave our mem­bers in schools with shrink­ing enroll­ment, wor­ried for their futures, and no bet­ter orga­nized to fight back than they were a year ago.”

MORE’s vision is to expand on the com­mu­ni­ty out­reach of its affil­i­ate groups and build mem­ber pow­er through direct orga­niz­ing. Thus far, inter­nal capac­i­ty build­ing has tak­en the form of elect­ing chap­ter lead­ers — which, in many schools, are mere­ly appoint­ed by the prin­ci­pal and func­tion­al­ly non-exis­tent — and bol­ster­ing exist­ing pock­ets of sup­port. This focus on orga­niz­ing, while yet to assume full shape, takes after the work of the Cau­cus of Rank-and-File Edu­ca­tors (CORE) in Chica­go, which cur­rent­ly leads the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU).

In terms of polit­i­cal and social ori­en­ta­tion I think we have a lot in com­mon with CORE,” Wain­er says, turn­ing a union into a force to fight for mem­bers’ rights and also ally­ing with larg­er forces to fight for qual­i­ty schools.”

MORE’s con­nec­tion with Chica­go goes beyond vision. NYCoRE is a close ally of its Chica­go equiv­a­lent, Teach­ers for Social Jus­tice, an active force in the CORE-led CTU. Lead­ers from MORE and CORE have built rela­tion­ships through a vari­ety of meet­ings, includ­ing an inter­na­tion­al teacher con­fer­ence that CORE host­ed last sum­mer and a pre­sen­ta­tion that CORE lead­ers gave at Columbia’s Teach­ers Col­lege in 2010.

MORE is sober about its chal­lenges in repli­cat­ing CORE’s efforts — win­ning union lead­er­ship and shift­ing dis­course and pol­i­cy in the city.

The elec­tion next year is going to be a mas­sive oper­a­tion on our part,” says Sam Cole­man, a sev­enth-year dual-lan­guage teacher. We have more peo­ple than any of the oppo­si­tion groups have ever had, because we’ve pulled so many groups togeth­er. Our work is still find­ing those peo­ple who are will­ing to do extra work.”

The vast­ness of New York’s school sys­tem, along with the cov­er­age of Uni­ty lead­er­ship and loy­al­ty from retiree vot­ers, pos­es a major uphill bat­tle for any oppo­si­tion cau­cus. MORE has almost no rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Stat­en Island and in large parts of Queens, Brook­lyn and the Bronx. By con­trast, the incum­bents uproot­ed by CORE in Chica­go had only been in office for six years and lacked any­thing remote­ly resem­bling Unity’s elec­toral machine in New York. What’s more, the writ­ing had been on the wall in Chica­go for longer — may­oral con­trol was grant­ed by Repub­li­can state leg­is­la­tors in 1995, and had been fol­lowed by a string of char­ter-hap­py pub­lic school CEOs, includ­ing Arne Duncan.

There was much more of a sense among Chica­go teach­ers that their careers were on the line,” says Wain­er. We have no choice but to engage in patient orga­niz­ing, which may take a long time. On the oth­er hand, there could be an explo­sion of activ­i­ty if the cli­mate changes.”

Con­tact James Cer­son­sky at jcersonsky@​gmail.​com or fol­low him on Twit­ter @cersonsky.

James Cer­son­sky is a Philadel­phia-based writer and orga­niz­er. His writ­ing has appeared at The Nation, Dis­sent, Alter­net, and else­where. Email him at jcer­son­sky [at] gmail [dot] com or fol­low him on Twit­ter @cersonsky.
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