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 régime 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.

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