Reformers Aim To Shake Up the New York City Teachers Union

Ari Paul

Teachers from the rank-and-file caucus of New York City's teachers union, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators. (Labor Notes / Facebook)

Manhattan special education teacher Jia Lee just couldn’t take it anymore.

New York state Common Core testing standards, implemented in January of 2011 under the first Andrew Cuomo administration, not only tied teachers’ careers to student scores, but forced those teachers to focus solely on taking exams and diverted all educational energy toward rote memorization.

They’re little human beings, not test scores,” she says.

Lee was frustrated. But she says her union, the United Federation of Teachers (Local 2, the largest affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers) had agreed on implementing new testing requirements in order to negotiate with the state on how that regime would go forward.

When Lee announced that she and her colleagues would protest by not administering the required test in 2014, having pulled her own son out of testing as a parent activist the year before, the union regarded it as an unsanctioned action and gave her no support, she says. Lee claims they decided not to impose the test on their students, and no disciplinary charges from the school administration ever came down, either.

Her claims do, however, fly in the face of the UFT’s official stance on testing. UFT president Michael Mulgrew said as early as 2011 that testing requirements harmed students and teachers alike. The relentless march onward of the testing obsession represents the complete triumph of ideology over evidence,” he stated.

Nevertheless, Lee was unimpressed with the union’s stance, and as a result of her activism, was invited to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on the subject of testing, which she said shifted all resources in education away from social studies toward rote memorization, and that arts and musical education rested on outside funding from parents. Now a public face in the nationwide movement of teachers and parents resisting rigorous testing in schools, she is vying to become the president of one America’s most important teachers unions.

This month, she’ll face off against two-and-a-half term incumbent Michael Mulgrew as the lead candidate for the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, the local branch of the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators that has affiliates throughout the country who are inspired by the reformers who took control of the Chicago Teachers Union and successfully led the 2012 strike.

Lee, 39, admits that the task seems insurmountable: the Unity Committee, or Unity Caucus, which Mulgrew is a member of, has held uninterrupted power in the UFT for five decades — in part through the key voting bloc of retirees. In most unions, retired members don’t vote in union elections.

But she’s hopeful despite the odds. We see the election as an organizing tool,” Lee told me while taking a break from an all-day MORE organizing meeting earlier this year. The real challenge is to build a rank-and-file movement.”

MORE formed a slate in 2013, and lost, with members from previous dissident caucuses. The difference with MORE is that it seems to build of the militancy in Chicago as well as the reform slate takeover of teachers unions in Los Angeles. As Lee sees it, the upcoming MORE push is the latest beachhead in a nationwide rank-and-file teacher reform movement.

Calling Mulgrew and AFT President and former UFT President Randi Weingarten co-conspirators” in the privatization of public education, Lee cites the trend of accepting mayoral control of schools and defense of Common Core testing as a way to get a proverbial seat at the table to mitigate the impact of such proposals rather than oppose them outright. In the past, Lee says, both the UFT and the AFT received money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, compromising the unions’ ability to oppose privatization. (The foundation is one of the principal funders of free-market education reform efforts around the country.)

The union also rankled some of the city’s progressives in 2013, when it backed the most conservative and Wall Street-friendly candidate in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary, Bill Thompson Jr (he had headed the city’s board of education before it was dissolved under mayoral control).

This has put Mulgrew’s UFT in the odd position of making enemies on both the Left and Right, as he’s still vilified by the pro-charter movement as the defender of an untenable educational status quo. Lee actually agrees with the conservative perception that the UFT looks inward to protect what it has as a union without working to create a better education system. The purpose of MORE and its parent organization, United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators, is to advance what they call social justice unionism” in public education, in which teachers unions address the inequalities in schools more holistically by fighting for more resources in low-income communities of color and advocating for smaller class sizes, which benefit teachers and students alike. Indeed, the last teacher strikes in Chicago and Seattle were primarily about advancing student issues, as major economic matters for teachers had been settled before teachers walked off the job.

Our work is impacted and can impact these conditions,” Lee says.

But even on administrative union issues, Lee claims that Mulgrew has failed to deliver a contract that provides sensible workloads and protects members.

It’s impossible to complete the amount of paperwork and perform the day to day work within our contractual hours,” she says. We’re estimating, based on a survey, that teachers are spending 10 to 20-plus after-school hours to complete and adhere to compliance measures. Also, teachers who have been pushed out into the absent teacher reserve have had no real representation. They’re at the whims of site representatives who are appointed by [New York’s Department of Education].”

Lee continues:

Teachers who’ve been targeted by dictatorial and micro-managing administrators are finding themselves fending for themselves. For example, the blind teacher who was falsely accused of having alcohol on his breath and forced out, and the teacher who was pushed out for teaching a unit on the Central Park 5. There was a librarian who, just last year, won her case against the DOE for wrongful dismissal — with her own lawyers.

MORE’s platform includes pro-democracy issues that are often at the heart of union reform movements, including reduced use of staff representatives and increased reliance on elected rank-and-file chapter leaders, and opening up union publications to all member viewpoints even if they conflict with the leadership.

Mulgrew enjoys a great degree of incumbency power and has a list of accomplishments to counter Lee and MORE’s critique. Over the past year, he has boasted of his close work with Mayor Bill de Blasio on a number of progressive innovations in schools, including reducing the use of police in schools, expanding universal pre-K (a boon for the union, as it will mean more teacher hiring) and fighting to cap the number of charter schools in the city. He won accolades from progressives when he marched against the lack of an indictment in the infamous Eric Garner case, angering the police union and several dozen pro-cop teachers.

Mulgrew declined to speak about the election beyond an affirmation that The UFT is a democracy.” In its newsletters, Unity has pointed to considerable progress in its approach to working with the city and state, including pushing a state mandate that included replacing the Common Core with new state learning standards — to be developed with sufficient local input,’” and that the governor suspended test-related teacher evaluations for at least four years” at the behest of UFT lobbying.

On the national level, from the December committee newsletter: Mulgrew was in the White House as President Obama signed a law barring the federal government from linking teacher evaluations to test scores. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) also helps states and districts reduce unnecessary tests, kills one-size-fits-all mandates, encourages college-ready high-school graduation, and expands high-quality state pre-K.”

The Unity committee has said that while critics like the MORE caucus accuse the leadership of working too closely with the state and city governments, this the necessary strategy to attaining real progress and that its easy to lambast such a tactic when one is not actually in a position of leadership.

They are oppositional, so their raison d’etre is to oppose,” says one newsletter from last year. It’s what they do best. With no ideas and no solutions of their own, they are quick to negate everything UFT/UNITY says and does.”

Lee says she is unfazed by the odds, in part because she hopes, like many MORE supporters also hope, that the election can be a form of rank-and-file organizing that will extend beyond the spring elections, in order to mobilize militant teacher, parent and student organizing against privatization and the over-reliance in test scores with or without the union leadership’s approval.

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Ari Paul has covered politics for The Nation, Vice, The Guardian, Dissent, Jacobin, Al Jazeera America and many other outlets.
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