Friday, April 20, 2007

UFT Incorporated

by Sean Ahern

After four years NAC (pursuing the change from above) has pretty much disappeared into Unity without discernible effect on the mothership. ICE/TJC's challenge to Unity(change from below) may be likened to 'grabbing an elephant by the tail', not much in the way of a budding insurgency here.

I used to think the UFT was a labor organization ultimately subject to the expressed will of working teachers. I know there are dedicated Chapter Leaders on this list who have held the fort in their schools and kept members active and involved. I applaud such efforts at the school level, I just don't see how the positive change can go much beyond this.

Consider for a moment that the UFT is neither a teachers union, nor a company union, nor a corrupt union, nor a retiree association, but a management corporation, UFT Inc., with two large office buildings, a health insurance plan, the $40 billion TRS, The Teachers Center and other properties and investments, perks and privileges to maintain.

The Labor Management subsidiary of UFT Inc.

The rank and file opposition engages only one branch of UFT Inc.; its labor management subsidiary. We have done so in the mistaken belief that working teachers can (given sufficient mobilization) hold their "leaders" accountable or put new ones in office. I now think this model is misleading and harmful if it promotes demoralization.

Recall that only around 1/3 of the population of the colonies supported Independence from Great Britain. Even during great social movements and revolutions, a relatively small number of people are actively involved. Even if the majority of the working membership of the UFT voted against the current leadership, the leadership would not change. No amount of membership engagement alone will lead to a removal of the current leadership or even a change in the structure or goals of the organization. Why suggest otherwise?

Pure and simple caucuses, single issue groups and social justice groups?

The ICE/TJC is only the latest in a long line of rank and file activist ready to battle the machine. But what's the plan? The opposition has set out to prove that we can be better trade unionists than the current leadership and that our efforts along these lines will bring us closer to our goal of a "Just contract" (what is this?) and "Union democracy". Very little consideration is given to those who have walked this road before.

I have nothing but the highest regard for those CL's who have managed to keep their heads and self respect and independence from the machine. I just don't think that replication of this model at more and more schools is going to change UFT Inc. Every school has its own particular issues and problems, what brings us all together?

Issues related to gender, racial and class oppression, NCLB, pedagogy, criminalization, violence, boredom and demoralization among both staff and students, Mayoral Control, and High stakes testing, War and occupation, and other issues which affect living ,learning and working conditions, solidarity among the members and between the membership and the parents, students, and communities of color are deemed beyond the bounds of consensus by the opposition caucuses and therefor off the agenda. What's left? To decry the contractual sellouts and eclipse of democracy time and again?

Activists on pursue issues on their own or join into adhoc groups, seek support from foundations or grad schools, politicians, liberal corporate reformers, radical, socialist, anarchist sects. Others are easily assimilated into UFT Inc which can make use of the energy and conviction of radicals in small doses. UFT Inc thus becomes a star around which orbit a wide array of groups, caucuses across the political spectrum. Even those who think they are "independent" are responding in one way or another to its dominance created in part by fragmentation.

With relative ease, UFT Inc contains skirmishes in discrete, compartmentalized engagements. They'll give one group a meeting room, or invite an individual to join a committee, maybe they'll call you a commie or a anti-semite, maybe they'll stroke you or kick you in the head. When everyone is divided, dissenters are managed in one way or another without much difficulty.

What does Solidarity look like?

For over 40 years UFT Inc has rendered services to the corporate and political elite in exchange for their fiefdom over the bargaining unit. UFT Inc is powerful but I think they are vulnerable on a number of levels provided the opposition can shed some of its own ideological baggage and blinders. I don't think its likely that it can be reformed from within. Change will come through a convergence of rank and file members in concert with a schools based movement for fundamental reordering of societal priorities. Call it a revolution or an evolution but its going to have to be a mass movement that creates a new sense of social solidarity strong enough to loosen the oligarchy's grip.

Most importantly the opposition can help to build such a movement by breaking with the Shanker/Feldman legacy and the defense of white racial privileges that this legacy of opportunism is based upon.

Challenge the whitening of the teaching staff in the name of both labor solidarity and solidarity with the students, parents and communities of color is one small step but its something real and deeply resonant in our history. Solidarity has real powers. Even in small doses it inspires hope. It shows up the collusion between UFT Inc and BloomKlein, it causes fissures within the Unity machine, it builds a working group of folks whose repudiation of racial privilege creates a bond of solidarity with lasting significance beyond a contract struggle or a single issue. It's a seed worth planting.

The preemption of a strictly rank and file reform initiative by UFT Inc.

The large size of the local (largest in the US I think) and the small size of most of the schools creates a federal type system which gives inordinate power to a central leadership that can weather any localized rebellions.

UFT Inc has carefully insulated their labor management division from even a perfect storm of rank and file insurgency. Witness the weight accorded the retiree vote. Plans are in the works to bring in new groups of members who don't work in the education field, further diluting the weight of those actually working in NYC public schools.

It is just not a viable strategy to say to working teachers, take back your union! Run for CL and Delegate and Vote against the tentative agreements, Speak up at meetings - win the majority of working teachers to vote against the Unity caucus and then we'll see. See what? That you are in a dead end? That UFT Inc has preempted rank and file control and reduced the entire apparatus from CL to local wide election to a consultative role, at best?

The other holdings of UFT Inc provide its board of directors a depth of reserves to help manage discontent in the labor division: the political/economic connections to the oligarchy, to the Israeli lobby, to the educational bureaucratic complex, the media. I think they have back door connections to the Special Investigators office not to mention all levels of the DOE bureaucracy. Bloomklein know this and its partially the reason for their decimation of the central and regional offices. It seems like they are destroying their own management infrastructure, but Bloomklein realize that this infrastructure was as much (if not more) UFT Inc and SSA as it was theirs.

The new agreement shows how the DOE and UFT Inc are in cahoots. The majority of teachers and parents and students are on the outside looking in. This collaboration brings us one step closer to the Chicago nightmare. The people have to create some new forms and new connections and new leaders quick fast.

Look closely at the crafting of this compromise. It pushes through the mayors reform agenda while at the same time institutionalizing a privilege for certain schools who now have the choice of hiring another teacher at $100,000 or a newbie for 50,000 and pocket the difference for another use.

A school with a senior staff now has a newly created form of "equity", a school full of newbies is out in the cold. Who is being protected here? Who wins who looses? Look closely here and see the method of divide and conquer and social control as practiced by both BloomKlein and UFT Inc. Isn't some sort of privilege being institutionalized before our eyes with the UFT as mid wife and overseer? This is supposed to be in teachers interests? Look at what they do, not what they say. It is a new order of disaster, way worse than the lengthening of the working day. If the UFT was a union they would have made a common front with the SSA and community groups and teachers and drew together the rising discontent to create the blessed community where the rubber meets the road, in schools and classrooms throughout the city as a model for the nation. A new paradigm The collaboration between the adults at the school level.

Did any of the extraordinary influence of UFT Inc trickle down to the rank and file or lead to improvements in working and learning conditions or increased parental involvement or accountability? Excuse me if I don't mourn over the destruction of the DOE bureaucracy or rush to demonstrate on their behalf, or cheer at this latest consensus between UFT Inc and BloomKlein.

UFT Inc and BloomKlein have joined together to protect their interests and exclude people. School workers and parents and community folks need to join together. This is the direction for the UFT rank and file activists. Their is no way to change UFT Inc apart from a broader movement. The self contained rank and file caucus strategy by itself will not bring about the desired improvements in wages, working and learning conditions for the large majority of working members. The UFT Inc's Board of Directors receives and gives support from the the oligarchy, the rank and file must do the same with the working class of the city.

The issues raised by the opposition are very much within the agenda set by UFT Inc in the sense that they are limited to protesting contracts(sellouts and givebacks without even a attempt at defense) and the extremely centralized party line control on display in meetings and publications. It is not a positive program. Highly centralized control over meetings and the UFT press are issues far removed from struggling teachers and not likely to arouse much interest. The reform program has not not resonated strongly within the rank and file partly I think because the contracts and the contract "struggle" look choreographed from start to finish, with the opposition playing a part they might not even realize has been written for them. (A caricature of a Union, a caricature of an opposition. The Truman show of a "labor" movement, its difficult to build up much steam about this)

The less senior half of the staff is really struggling financially but the opposition has not taken on the tough nut of what to do about a vastly unfair salary schedule that UFT Inc has fashioned over the years. The future lies with the new members- is the opposition programme addressing them? is the whitening of the teaching staff in the interests of these new members? Quite the contrary, it is further weakening the already frayed bonds between student and educators and strengthening the domination of the corporate reformers and UFT Inc.

I think the opposition gives most of its attention to the current active membership, those chapter leaders and delegates in the first place, and those who vote secondly. This is a UFT Inc bailiwick. Do you tailor your programme to gain a majority of this group or is the natural constituency to be found among the over 70% of the working members who do not participate? you have to ask why they are not active and what their concerns are. (I don't think the lack of participation is due to satisfaction.) That doesn't come from the EB or DA. More over, there is no way out of the impasse faced by teachers without a radically new relationship with the working class communities of color. One that sees the common interests, one that rejects racial privileges as necessary corollary of solidarity.

What the hell is the UFT Inc? If the social and economic order of the city is disrupted through the concerted action of those within its domain, UFT Inc looses its dues checkoff , at least temporarily until such time as they proved themselves capable of reestablishing control. What does this tell you?

The Dues farm and the captive bargaining unit

Like the King and his vassals in feudal times, UFT Inc. occupies a status similar to a vassal vis-a-vis city and state executives.

By virtue of state labor labor law, UFT Inc is granted a modern day version of a fiefdom, officially referred to as exclusive bargaining agent, which entitles them to involuntary deductions made from members of the designated bargaining unit. These fees, called "dues" or agency shop fees are deducted by the city from the captive members of the bargaining unit and paid to UFT Inc. so long as UFT Inc makes sure that no strike or concerted action ensues. (In this sense UFT Inc has even less of an independent existence and is even more dependent on the city and state executives than the vassals of old were to their Lords.) The vassal of middle ages lived by 'land for loyalty', the UFT Inc lives today by dues for loyalty.

As long as UFT Inc. can manage all discontent it is free to profit and service its other interests, including real estate, the health insurance company, the TRS, the Teacher's Center, a political patronage machine joined at the hip to the Israel lobby, and who knows what else.

I started thinking about this with all the brouhaha the UFT and their "allies" are raising over the Mayors' new funding scheme, that there will be a disincentive to hire senior teachers. I think this is all for show. If the UFT bargaining strategy is shifted towards shortening the time to top pay(with the aim of getting back to 8years from the current 22) then there will be greater solidarity and corporate education reformers will have a more difficult time slicing and dicing up the membership. If the UFT was primarily a labor organization and not UFT Inc this would be the immediate response. Freeze the top salary and forgo all salary schedule changes save the one that each year kicks the longevity raises backwards, until all six of them are gone and top salary is reached after 8 years. Freeze the top and bring the bottom up.

UFT Inc can't make this adjustment because it isn't in their interests to do so and would furthermore be a repudiation of their negotiating strategy for the past 30 years which has lengthened the time to top pay from 8 to 22 years. UFT Inc is the giant with their feet stuck in clay but as long as the dues keep flowing in and their perks and privileges are secure there is no incentive for them to change.

What difference does it make to UFT Inc if the corporate reformers figure two for one ain't bad? What difference to UFT Inc if turnover in the teaching ranks increases and the median salary/seniority level is lowered? It doesn't matter if a member makes 40 or 100 thousand per year, if they have 3 years seniority or 30, UFT Inc collects the same amount per-capita! The more the merrier! The two newbies for one old timer approach of the corporate reformers means more members, means more dues! More customers for the health plan (and they are younger and less costly)! More money for more real estate! More money flowing into the TRS and less flowing out! More perks and privileges to buy more supporters and grow the machine! At this rate UFT inc might be able to takeover the entire shell of the AFL -CIO and run the burgeoning federal educational bureaucracy! Oh their future is bright indeed provided that shining star Hillary assumes the throne in 2008!

The UFT is a business, a management corporation that fronts as a labor organization. I'm sure there are plenty of members who think this is fine or don't think much about it or don't expect much more than a health plan and a pension plan for $40 per check. Most teachers I talk with are extremely disappointed with the job as it stands but think of changing schools or leaving the profession as the only option. I think the rank and file opposition has to go beyond the "just"contract and more democracy formula' if we are ever to reach this disaffected, disgusted majority which is going to grow and not turn over voluntarily as the economy deteriorates. (massive layoffs is another matter).

Focus more on conditions in the schools and classrooms, share strategies and stories to resist the micro managing, the testocracy, the criminalization. Promote social criticism and critical thinking, and support each other to be better teachers. Advocate an explicitly progressive, environmentally friendly and pro social justice pedagogy. Tie what is happening to teachers standards of living to the white male supremacist pro corporate class warfare being waged against the people. Once teachers break out of the ghetto that has been constructed by UFT Inc and connect with the people, progress on a host of fronts can be made. From the living conditions of students and families, to the learning and working conditions in the schools. Progress along these lines requires a movement based on solidarity.

Stop fighting UFT Inc on its own terms. Things are only going to get worse with the housing market bust, trade imbalance, decline of the dollar, recession, and more. We are approaching a meltdown similar to the NYC fiscal crisis, but writ nationwide. UFT Inc is just looking to ride it out on our backs just like the corporate elite they serve.

I think a new approach to contracts is needed that goes beyond upping the ante or calling for more militant demos,. protests, strikes, etc. The opposition should be putting forward new ideas for compressing the salary gap, promoting solidarity across race and gender and uniting with the parents and communities of color that comprise 85% of the student body and the majority of the working class of this city. We should be calling for more teachers of color not fewer. Restoration of arts, music, athletics, hands on programs that lead to skilled employment, and engage older students. Dramatically reduce the class size in k-8. End mandatory grade retention. Eliminate CUNY tuition for NYC HS grads and teachers

We should be calling for a fundamentally new mission and structure for UFT Inc. Divest, decentralize. Send all these high paid full time officers packing or back to the classroom. Sell the buildings and create local meeting places dispersed throughout the city. Break up the city wide local into borough wide locals who join with other school worker orgs and parent/community groups in a city wide school community congress? UFT Inc should divest itself of all Israel bonds and sever all links that support occupation and the wall.

Its nice to be able to borrow and save through the TRS but is our $40 billiion being invested to build affordable housing and improve our quality of life or is it all military industrial complex, coca cola and big pharma and companies that do more harm than good?

Lets have a health plan instead of a pharmaceutical/desease plan. Etc, etc. But it all starts with a focus on solidarity...I remember when thousands of uncertified teachers were fired, where was the UFT Inc? Where was the so called opposition? Under mayoral control the pedagogical staff has been whitened by a defacto affirmative action hiring for whites plan, which neither the UFT Inc has exposed, nor have the oppostition groups put it on their agenda. Without solidarity we go no where. UFt Inc and the corporate reformers BloomKlein et al will manage to contain a self defeated, divided and dispirited opposition, if we let them.

Sean Ahern

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