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What happened?

September 5, 2020 pm30 1:40 pm

August 19 and August 20 the United Federation of Teachers leadership began work towards a school reopening job action. NYC and the NYC Department of Education had been mostly uncooperative all summer. Disagreements about safety were not close to be resolved. The Department wanted minimal testing requirements, the union wanted stringent testing requirements.

There had been cooperation over the summer – but the results were generally bad for teachers and schools: Blended learning with impossible constraints, 1800 plans written by 1800 principals (with training in pedagogy, not in safety planning), Instructional lunch, and just now more roles than teachers.

So August 19 and 20 the UFT holds a press conference, announces safety non-negotiables, and begins organizing meetings. First chapter leaders were invited to borough-wide meetings. Then members were invited to meetings in smaller groups.

My union is run top-down. Central gives instructions to the boroughs, and often directly to District Reps. District Reps give directions to Chapter Leaders – some of whom follow them – and that’s all that’s really expected. In a few chapters there is actual discussion, but in many the CL doesn’t even communicate information from the Central, and in most the CL just communicates from Central. There is not much two-way flow of information. The idea of Officers and Reps “serving” members is paternalistic, at best. (with very notable exceptions – if you almost jumped out of your chair when you read those words – you are probably in that minority. And we are incredibly thankful to the handful of you)

So Chapter Leaders, then members got invited to meetings. And the stakes, possible job action, questions about personal safety and safety of our students, were high. Very high. Higher than at any other union meeting most of us have been to. Ever. And the reaction was not what they leaders expected. In the UFT, instructions are given, chapter leaders follow them, or ignore them. But here there were questions. Lots of questions.

  • Do we have to strike? (Quite a bit of nervousness)
  • Why aren’t we demanding full remote (Quite a few challenges to Central’s “We want to go in, but safely” strategy)
  • What’s the timeline? (Central had not prepared a timeline. These were designed a bit like pep rallies)
  • When’s the vote? There was no answer.
  • What steps should chapter leaders take? The answers were absent or nebulous, came from a variety of sources, but not central. I was asked to organize a chapter meeting, but not yet. And there was no follow-up to say “now” (passive voice there, intentionally so) (Central had not prepared next steps. These were designed a bit like pep rallies)

The process gets repeated in the member meetings, but attendance is gooooood… but not excellent. And members might ask fewer difficult questions, but there is a clear “enthusiasm gap” (larger when considering the significant numbers who did not come).

What happened? 

That’s easy. You should not run a union top-down. You cannot organize a strike top-down.

By August 27 and 28 it was clear to many that this was not going right. Instead of vagueness about a schedule for voting, discussion was filtering to the members that it would be Exec Board 8/31 and Delegate Assembly 9/1, and there was not time for a membership vote. After the DA , the move would be to court for an injunction against an unsafe opening.

I was worried about what was going on. I wrote to Mulgrew and the officers, urging them NOT to skip a membership vote:

I understand that there is consideration of strike authorization votes at the Executive Board and the Delegate Assembly. 
I also understand that there may not be a membership vote. I hope I am mistaken.  That would be a serious error.
There is the issue of democracy. but I think that is relatively minor.
But the issues of member engagement loom large. Organizing a vote increases member engagement, and member buy-in. It also provides real-time feedback from the field. Are chapter leaders organizing? Is there resistance? What are the issues?
The activity around organizing a vote makes a strike more effective.
For members who are already on board, it makes a smaller difference; the vote increases enthusiasm.  But for members on the fence, skipping the vote sends the message that the leaders don’t trust the members, or don’t care what they think. It will harden the pockets of resistance.
I don’t know if support in the field is at 95%, 85%, 75%, 65% or 55%… but even at 85% we need to win more people over.
A membership vote makes us – and any potential job action – stronger.
I hope that I was indeed mistaken – that a membership vote is planned. But if that is not the case, I would thank you to consider the matter carefully,

And then on Monday August 31 the vote at the Executive Board was for both strike authorization, but also for 24 hours more to negotiate. And Tuesday morning de Blasio and Mulgrew and Carranza announced a deal.

Why the deal?

From the mayor’s side, there really are serious problems with the plans. September 10 (which had been scheduled to be the first day with kids) was looking like a disaster. He bought time, and he bought labor “peace” without much cost.

From the UFT leadership’s standpoint, the strike threat was not nearly as effective as they had presumed it would be, and they did not have confidence they could pull off a job action. Under those circumstances a deal might not have been such a bad move.

An alternate explanation comes from Mike Schirtzer, one of three non-Unity Caucus members on the Executive Board, and the only one to vote against the deal:

It was the very threat of a job action and litigation by our union that forced this mayor to come to the negotiating table to address the issue of keeping our children and educators safe. Before that point he wouldn’t budge.

I agree with most of Mike’s reasoning, and appreciate his willingness to speak openly about it. But I don’t agree with his assessment that the threat was effective (and I dismiss the UFT leadership’s similar assessment as self-serving)

What would have happened if the UFT had moved forward towards a job action? 

Given the very tight tolerances for scheduling (unworkable, actually) a school might not be able to function, even if everyone shows up. But 30% staying out (beyond those with accommodations) might have shut a school. And the real number would have been higher. But how much higher? Some schools, maybe not all, but probably most, would have been unable to function. A strike, even with the preparations looking half-assed, would probably have shut the system.

A strike might have shut the system, would probably have shut the system, but without any guarantee. And a few entire schools might have kept working – a few at first. With time a weak strike (and there would have been time) could have easily become weaker.

But even if a strike had been effective in shutting the system, a weak strike would have done incalculable damage to the union in the long run. It would have divided us. It would have made member bitter at member, and further diminished trust in the leadership. A short term win was possible. But a long term, expensive loss was in the cards.

Couldn’t there have been a better threat?

Yes. But that would have required a different approach.

  • Open discussion. Organizing for a job action requires that members talk to each other. Members need to convince themselves, and convince each other. Most of our chapters do not engage in open discussion of union issues. That should change. But that’s hard. The UFT has developed a culture where asking hard questions or disagreeing is treated as disloyal. It will take a conscious effort to end that. I mean, in fact, it is disloyal to the membership when one of us knows there is a potential problem, but says nothing. But how do we get to the place where showing loyalty to the union and the membership comes before showing loyalty to an officer?
  • Time. Any kind of organizing takes time, but especially when we need to get 100% or close to 100% on board. Starting August 19? Come on. And it is not just now. Union decisions have to allow members time to figure things out. To talk. To schedule. But three weeks to go from zero to strike was not adequate.
  • Sharing information. Real discussions require real information. And holding information back from the membership should be considered incompatible with leadership. It’s not just now. This organization speaks to the Mayor, to the Chancellor, to the Press before it speaks to members. That’s bad. At the Chapter Leader meetings two weeks ago CLs asked “what’s next?” and DRs said they didn’t know – because UFT Central was not sharing information. At the DA Peter Lamphere asked where we could read the agreement. You know what? The UFT leadership has asked members and delegates to vote on agreements in the past, when we did not have them to read. (Here’s an example) That’s wrong.
  • Knowledge of strike organization. No one in the leadership of the UFT has led a teachers strike. Almost none of the school-based membership have been involved in a strike. We went into this without experience. But other AFT locals have had those experiences. All layers of our leadership, in better days in the future, should learn from locals with strike experience. For officers and reps arranging trips and seminars should not be too hard. Workshops in NYC for chapter leaders and chapter activists would be useful. And they, in turn, could bring the knowledge back to chapters.
  • Goals. This gets really specific. But the UFT leadership’s goals were wrong. Early on, maybe late May or mid June, they decided that NYC schools could open in September. I have written about the fixation on blended learning, and on compromising all sorts of stuff to make it happen. The UFT leadership, before this talk of job action, had already given up on the one clear issue that had a chance of uniting the membership: keeping our schools remote. Look, members agreed with Mulgrew that the “schools should be safe” and that we needed “better testing” – but those were not enough.

So they cut a deal. We cut a deal.

What’s in the Deal?

Random testing, of a pretty big chunk of staff and students (UFT had wanted 100%, before school began)

Delayed opening, teachers 9/8, remote for sign-in purposed 9/16, full instruction 9/21

(Vagueness warning) – some ability for a chapter to have safety issues addressed before going into a school

Is this a sellout?

This deal? No. Each one of those points is something we should want. Better testing. More time to prepare for the year. And some ability for chapters to walk out.

We can be disappointed that it is not nearly enough. It is not.

But we also know that we averted a risky strike that could have weakened us in the long run.

Of course, there is more. We still have plans that won’t work. We have unnecessarily risky maskless instructional lunch. We have 1800 plans devised by 1800 principals, some of whom I wouldn’t trust to tie their own shoes.

We also have to address the individual school safety issues. This has been dumped onto individual chapters – potentially dividing the strength of the union. We need to see how aggressively UFT Central and the Borough Offices pursue violations, and how actively they encourage and support chapters standing up.

Are we done?

This is not the last deal for this year. If schools open September 21 there will be huge problems and issues all over the City. But we have a few more days. We want to teach. We want the teaching to work, as best as it can under these circumstances. And we want to keep all of us, ourselves, our families, our schools, our colleagues and our students, safe. We will ultimately need to be remote.





2 Comments leave one →
  1. Samuel Noel permalink
    September 5, 2020 pm30 3:29 pm 3:29 pm

    Excellent points made! The staffing issue is a hot mess in particular. School administrators still don’t know what their numbers will be. I was asked yesterday if I had applied for a remote accommodation and if it was approved. They couldn’t even tell me what I’m teaching. Even if we were fully staffed, the Heroes Act has no chance of passing the Senate, so what does 9,000 layoffs look like? We’re walking into the building cold. We don’t even know if we’re continuing with Google Classroom or moving towards the iLearnNYC platform used over the summer by the DOE. We gave all our technology away to students last March, so what does pedagogy look like in the classroom?

    • September 5, 2020 pm30 11:03 pm 11:03 pm

      All the safety issues matter – but we still will have schools with students arriving – and our plans are not good enough to make them run. Yes, we don’t have the staffing. And no, that does not give the DoE pause. September 21? They will blame on the principals.

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