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Going to UFT Meetings

December 11, 2020 pm31 8:24 pm

There are people with perfect attendance and that’s not me, but I do like going to union meetings, and my attendance is pretty good.

There are four different kinds of United Federation of Teachers meetings I attend. And all of them have changed during the pandemic.

DR Meetings

At my DR’s meetings we have a small group. It’s possible to have real discussion. And when I have very specific issues in my school, I can have a private conversation and get answers. Chapter Leaders meet each other, socialize. Eat. Sometimes we have similar problems. And when the DR makes a point, CLs can give specific examples, reinforce the point, clarify.

During the pandemic the DR meetings have become less rich. Losing the food hurts. Forget the line that food brings people to meetings – it’s true – but it’s the wrong people. Losing food hurts because the quality of conversation over food is generally higher. People focus better, listen better. Losing the social aspect hurts. I talk with who I sit with. And on a zoom? I am on my couch. Is it possible to get specific questions answered? Yes, but… not really in the flow of the meeting. I am better off sending an email or placing a phone call. And chapter leaders do not hear each other.

In August, when there was strike talk, large meetings were organized. They were on zoom. People talked. Communicated in the chat. I think the UFT leadership hated those meetings. Hated hearing voices that disagreed with them. This was not regular opposition people (who are actually fairly disciplined, and follow meeting rules) – but regular members who blurted stuff out. I think, as a result, many UFT meetings switched to no-chat options. My DR did. I don’t know if it was his decision, or if it was an instruction from the borough or 52 Broadway.

So at my DR meetings now, I see who else is there (unless they are on with a phone number). And we can chat via text during the meeting. And he does take questions from members.

Chapter Meetings

My meetings are different. I hold chapter meetings about once a month. The pandemic has, in a strange way, been good for Chapter Meetings. Attendance in normal times is 60-80%. During COVID it’s been more like 75-100%. Almost everyone talks. Everyone is heard. During key moments – for example when we were trying to agree on a reopening plan and trying to get the principal to agree to an exception – almost everyone has participated, actively, with an understanding that we would reach broad consensus before making major decisions – in other words, we heard all the voices, and those voices mattered. I miss the Entemann’s, but the chit chat still happens, the chat is active, and chapter meetings still feel quite social.

Delegate Assembly

The Delegate Assemblies are a different matter. In theory they are the highest decision making body of the United Federation of Teachers. In practice they are theater. Generally all decisions have been made in advance. The leadership hates discussion, and will minimize it. Times when delegates speak are tightly time-limited. The question period had been too short, and was made shorter by the leadership planting questions (items that could have gone in the main report) stealing time from actual questions. At several DA’s I have made motions to extend the question period. Resolutions the leadership wants to pass, pass. When they are not high enough on the agenda, they change the order. Opposition resolutions are prevented from being placed on the agenda by carefully controlled votes.

But the Delegate Assemblies are important. The president’s report might be the same report he gave somewhere else the day before, but for many delegates and chapter leaders, it is the first time they are hearing it. Many take diligent notes. In that theater that is the DA the leadership and opposition often gauge how strong the leadership support is, or how much opposition there is on a particular issue. It doesn’t stop Unity from getting exactly what it wants – but it can modify how much they try to get next time.

They also gather a lot of people. I often go to a DA with a list of stuff I’m going to take care of – check up on something that hasn’t been moving, make a request for a speaker, let someone know how something turned out. Other people reach out to me. When I blogged more, I was often approached by individuals from the leadership who were concerned about the accuracy of something I had written, or who wanted to make sure I knew that an issue I had raised was being addressed, or totally the DoE’s fault.

And socially, they are interesting. People meet. They chat. They talk. Some sit and make snarky comments.

The food’s nothing special – a piece of fruit. But it goes. It usually gets finished.

The pandemic has really changed the Delegate Assemblies. They are via phone. There is no one to chat with, there are no union officers or employees to conduct business with, you can’t sit with your Rep. But I am in touch with people via text and twitter and facebook, and it’s not like being 100% alone. The question period has been extended. That’s positive. And there are fewer planted questions. Also positive. But I wonder, and most of us wonder, if the questions are being screened. Losing the pear? That wasn’t a meal. But there is no opportunity to amend (they’ve revised the rules of order) – and amendments were where quite a bit of interesting stuff happened (not always from the opposition, which tends to put up entirely different motions. Discussion is still limited. Last DA I was victimized by Mulgrew’s filibuster. Weird. I had no idea he felt threatened by one chapter leader suggesting blended learning sucks. In June I spoke well and Unity put up a high ranking speaker to remind the delegates not to be swayed by strong rational arguments. And even with restricting how much they have to hear from delegates, they dare not stop it entirely. The claim that the Assembly is a democratic body is very important for the union leadership. And for the rest of us, there is a chance of speaking. With the electronic vote totals, you get the actual amount of support/opposition on a given question. And it still is, formally, the highest decision making body. I dare not skip it.

High School Division Meeting

When I first started, John Soldini was HS VP, and there were maybe 100 high schools (and 100 high school chapter leaders) in the UFT. It seemed to me that most of them attended John’s meetings. The high school division concentrates opposition (the reasons for that are complicated, and deserve a separate post, maybe a few, and some serious discussion and input from others). In any case, John’s meetings were boisterous affairs, as he held his own among chapter leaders, half of whom had voted for him, half against him (roughly). Information got out, objections were heard, arguments were had, people ate something, and went home. Tell you what, everyone paid attention.

The high schools got broken up into mini schools, and we got to 200, 300, 400, and now 450 high schools. The break ups had a complex combination of causes, but one reason Unity signed on so hard at first had to do with breaking up concentrations of opposition. Later, as the DoE announced school closure after school closure, the UFT’s Unity leadership made schools fight as a school against closure, rather than fighting closure as policy, for the same reason.

Before this reached its peak Soldini retired and the next guy was a one term place holder, but after him, Unity put in the equivalent of BESE or PROMESA, an insufferable VP, hostile to high schools, who did his best to destroy the division. Meetings were worthless. Attendance plummeted. I recall Chapter Leaders being outnumbered by staff and paid reps at meeting after meeting. Yes, I was one of the few CLs who bothered to regularly show. I remember one, at 52 Broadway, with four Bronx HS chapter leaders, and NONE from any other borough, with maybe 17 people in total. If any of you are reading this, it was me, Alan, Sam, Zulma. Miss you guys.

So when Janella Hinds became VP, even without majority support in the high school division, things had to be better. And she was smart and engaging, and not afraid of conversations, even when people disagreed. It was worth doing work to build the high school meetings. And they did improve. But it was hard to maintain. Rotating half the meetings into the DR meetings in the boroughs was a smart idea. But even I travelled to them less often (I made one in Staten Island. Just once.) Those meetings brought together interesting people – in a large enough meeting for some back and forth, but small enough that people got a chance to talk. There was information. Questions really got answered. Food was ok. Conversations were good. In the last few years, however, I found myself attending fewer.

I went to a pandemic high school meeting yesterday. No food, of course. And chat was disabled, not a surprise. But we could not even see who else was attending. There were several presentations… and while there was an opportunity to ask a question IN WRITING there was none to speak, none to engage with each other. I tried texting people who I thought might be there. They hadn’t joined, or they left in boredom.

We listened as panelists spoke to each other. They spoke about virtual content and virtual content specialists. I did learn how central Blended Learning is to what the UFT is doing today. The Mayor announced he wants more kids 5 days in person, and keep others remote, and fewer blended. Even the writer for the Times wrote this week that shuffling between in person and remote was awkward. But at the UFT HS meeting no one who was allowed to speak was drawing back from blended; they were doubling down. Perhaps my suspicion is not correct, maybe the UFT leadership did not propose blended to the DoE back in May or June. But in any case, they are 100% on board today, more than Tweed is. More than City Hall is.

I should have signed off. But I was in the kitchen cooking, and did not want to miss if the webinar turned into a meeting. “We’ve heard what you said” “We would like to engage in conversation” and “We want to talk to all of you” were phrases, addressed without irony, at an entirely muted audience.

It felt like being a captive audience for an infomercial. I waited until the end. And then I felt dirty for having been there.




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