Disconnected Union Leadership

July 17, 2014 — 4 Comments

Business Unionsim

By Mike Schirtzer

Teacher and UFT Delegate: Leon M. Goldstein High School


Like most classroom teachers, I didn’t attend last weekend’s AFT convention. In fact, few working teachers knew it was going on, or had reason to care. Our delegates represented none of what we believe in and nothing that happened there will make any difference in our classroom. There was no call for Arne Duncan’s resignation, no resolution for a repeal of the Common Core Standards, and no new strategies for increasing union mobilization or supporting our students. Actually nothing of consequence was achieved. Members will go back to their respective locals and continue the same methods: Chicago Teachers Unions (CTU) will the lead the fight against so called reform that hurts our children and profession, while the AFT/UFT leadership will go back to a style of unionism that ensures that none of my friends become any more engaged in union activities.

Our union leaders, who spoke about Common Core, teachers’ evaluations and other “reform” (or what we call “deform”) policies, have not been in the classroom since I attended elementary school. They haven’t had to implement developmentally inappropriate standards or endlessly test prep rather than teach. They have not had to deal with one failed policy after another, none of which were developed by classroom educators.  Instead the DOE and corporate interests that seek to profit from our children developed these policies, blessed by our union leaders. The problem is none of the teachers I know were ever asked their thoughts on what positions our union should have. Why are so many of the people unaffected by these policies so vocal to defend them? It’s time for new leadership and new union strategies.


I am reminded of a conversation I had with Beth Dimino a few months back. She is the President of Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association, the AFT/NYSUT local in Long Island, New York. She told me anything she negotiates for her members has a direct impact on her and the students she teaches every day. That’s when it hit me: Common Core Standards, Danielson rubrics, value added measures, high stakes testing, and everything else we have had to face over the last few years is what she faces every day, not only as a union leader, but as a classroom teacher. That is why she speaks so passionately for her students and members; that’s why she fights so hard and my union leadership does not. She is a classroom teacher — they are not!


Randi Weingarten and Michael Mulgrew have not been classroom teachers for a very long time. When they speak about standards or evaluations they do not do so from first-hand experience. They don’t know what it is like to have to follow failed policies, which you know harm your pedagogy. They haven’t been offended by having their craft reduced to a checklist rubric. It is difficult to speak out against poverty, unless you have seen the reality of inequality in the eyes of your students on a daily basis. Anything that hurts our students hurts us.


At the AFT convention there was a panel on “Social Movement and Social Justice Unionism,” The new leader of Los Angeles teachers’ union (UTLA) Alex Caputo-Pearl explained social justice unionism: “ It’s explicit in fighting for racial and social justice. It’s explicit in fighting against privatization. It’s explicit in taking people on who need to be taken on, including a lot of Democrats. It’s a unionism that is willing to strike. It’s a unionism that is willing to build to a strike and strike if that’s what we need to do.” It was sad that Michael Mulgrew was also a panelist while he stands against everything that defines it. He never uttered the word strike and never did anything at all to mobilize for a real contract fight during the recent negotiations. While privatizers exploit our public schools by instituting data driven curriculum, high stakes testing, and close our schools so they can open up their charters, our union stands idly by. On this same panel Karen Lewis, President of CTU, described it as “member driven, member driven, member driven” (yes, she said it three times). In fact, while Mulgrew loudly defended Common Core, he never engaged the membership in an open debate to support or oppose it, that is not member driven unionism.


If the AFT really wanted a UFT member to speak out about social justice unionism, they would have invited union members and classroom teachers from the MORE caucus. We have teachers who have boycotted administering high stakes tests and tests only made to evaluate us. We have members who teach in specialized schools and fight for more inclusive entrance policies. Many of our teachers expose the lack of racial diversity within our workforce and work to change that. We work with parent groups such as Change the Stakes to protect our children from privatization.  Teachers from MORE support undocumented students by raising money for college scholarships. We have open meetings where all are welcome and healthy debate is encouraged. We work to mobilize UFT members to become engaged in our union. This is our vision, and it is far from that of Michael Mulgrew, Randi Weingarten, and the Unity caucus. The proof is in the pudding — our union does not hold actions in support of our communities.  Less than 75% of active members voted in the recent UFT election, which is not exactly evidence that the UFT is “member driven”. The UFT holds union meetings, or “Delegate Assemblies,” only for Chapter Leaders and Delegates, at which the agenda is pre-planned, Mulgrew speaks for an hour, members speak for a few minutes, most of those who vote on resolutions are bound by their Unity caucus to follow the party line, and none of it has an impact on the daily lives of working educators. This is not social justice unionism. This is why there is a disconnect between rank and file and our leadership.


We urge you to read Julie Cavanagh’s article on her view of social justice unionism, which speaks for many of us. She believes, as do I, that it has three components: “First, maintain the best of traditional unionism or professional unionism.  Second, recognize that students, parents, community and other union members are our natural allies and we must stand in solidarity together and fight for systemic change across the lines of social, racial and economic justice.  Third, build rank-and-file led, democratic unions that are member-driven.” This was not the case at the AFT 2014 Conference. The Common Core debate lasted all of 45 minutes, while people who have never been in a classroom or do not even have children in public schools, were given an hour to speak. The type of unionism we believe in would help the teachers I know become more involved in our UFT. If someone would have consulted them on what was negotiated in the new contract, our positions on Common Core, evaluations, testing or anything else, my friends might actually care that there was a union convention this past weekend. This is how we can make our union stronger.


It’s time for a new union strategies and new leadership. The current leaders of AFT and UFT are too far removed from the classroom and their disconnect is shown by the positions they take. MORE will win, we will change our union, we will mobilize the membership, and we will become leaders like Dimino, Caputo-Pearl, and Lewis, who fight for our students and our members!


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4 responses to Disconnected Union Leadership


    Leon, generally, I agree with your statements that UNITY CAUCUS led by Michael Mulgrew must do more to lead the discussion on how educators need professional development on implementing the Common Core. However scrapping the Common Core is a mistake. The Common Core standards are designed to replace spoon feeding students educational facts. It is designed to help them make practical use of what they learn. This means that students learn why 2 x 3 = 6 as opposed to just having them learn the multiplication tables or simply use calculators to find out that 2 x 3 = 6. It has them go beyond learning Historical facts such as the thirteen colonies fought against British oppression. It means teaching them what that oppression actually was. This would also include teach them to compare past oppression against nations to current oppression. It also requires students to learn how to make decisions. For example, after learning how George W. Bush reacted to 9/11, they might be asked to discuss how they would handle the situation if they were president. Obviously, this involves educating them about terrorism and terrorist groups. But it also involves them learning how to analyze the information they are given so that they can develop their own opinions and rationally defend them. It also involves teaching them how to research information so that they can teach themselves.

    The problem with the Common Core Standards is not the standards themselves, but the IMPLEMENTATION of these standards. Curriculum by educators still teaching in the classroom needs to be developed. Hiring private companies such as Pearson to develop curriculum and tests to meet Common Core Standards with little or no input from today’s educators in the classroom has been a big mistake. Our union leadership has to loudly explain this to the public. This should have been a main focus of the latest convention.

    Leon, I also agree that President Obama should be heavily criticized for the promotion of the development of private charter schools at the expense of public school education.
    Dismantling public school education (which is probably the only way to bridge the education gap of poverty students vs. wealthy students) is a terrible mistake. Private for-profit schools can cherry pick their students and most do. Major union conferences should focus on how best to educate the public about this. They have to do this by presenting the statistics and costs associated with replacing free public schools with charters and other for-profit schools. The unions should hold Obama accountable for promoting “competition” by promoting Charters and other for-profit schools.

    The unions should call for the immediate resignation or firing of Arne Duncan, Obama’s Education Secretary. His promotion of high stakes testing based on the common core as well as “rise to the top” has done major damage to public school education. It is a major reason why New York State hastily implemented the Common Core and the evaluation system we have associated with the Common Core. It is why New York State hired Pearson to develop the Common Core tests that have made teacher’s lives miserable and third graders vomit before and after taking exams.

    Any major state or national union conference must focus on these issues in order to be relevant to its membership. Our union leaders must develop strategies to get education leaders on a local, state and national level to develop curriculum aimed at teaching to the Common Core Standards. If the standards themselves need tweaking, then lets tweak them. Also our leadership must oppose vehemently any evaluation of teachers based on Common Core Standards test scores until teachers have curriculum that has been developed and field tested by their peers. This might take years to do.

    Our union leadership must also engage in possibly the most difficult discussion of all. That discussion must be on why there is such a gap between the education of poverty stricken students and the education of middle class and wealthy students. Simply pouring more money to teach students whom are economically deprived is not the answer. So therefore, the discussion also has to include how we can teach these economically deprived students so that the divide is bridged. The problem with this discussion is that we know a big reason why there is a big divide. Students from middle class and wealthy families generally read to their children when young. They expose them to educational experiences that economically deprived students do not get. Therefore, by the time students in poverty stricken homes get to kindergarten, they are already one or two years behind their middle class and wealthy peers. So, how we educate families to help their children before they get to pre-school and kindergarten has to be included in the discussion.

    Finally, our union leaders have to discuss the accountability issues that are plaguing educators today. A teacher in a school where the majority of students are Title 1 cannot be compared to a teacher teaching in non-title 1 wealthier environments. Teacher evaluation has to be based on how a teacher in his or her environment helps prepare, motivate, and teach students. Veteran teachers can walk through a school and be able to spot fellow teachers who teach and are effective as well as those whom are not. The problem is most of our evaluators (Assistant teachers and Principals) do not seem to have this ability. They also cannot seem to help classroom teachers who might be struggling because they are ineffective in the classroom themselves. Therefore, when asked to demonstrate what they think might help the teacher, they find they embarrass themselves. Just as a good teacher models what they expect from their students, a good administrator models good teaching practices for the teachers they supervise. Therefore, we need to demand new standards for educators to become administrators. They have to be able to prove (probably to a panel of current veteran classroom teachers) that they are master teachers before they become administrators. In other words, our administrators have to be made accountable for their ability to teach and develop teachers before they obtain their positions and try to make the teachers they supervise accountable for the work they do.


    Joe Behrman, Thank you for your on-target response. I agree with you about tackling why we have such differences in populations and how reading to children, from day one, is probably the single most important thing parents can do to narrow the difference.

    I also agree with you about how valuable veteran teachers can be in evaluating teaching and teachers. Unfortunately, many administrators go into that field because they have been ineffective teachers and, in any case, after years of not being in the classroom they may be out of touch with what works.

    Good points, all. Thanks again.


    Amen. I always said that if our union leaders truly had a stake in what policies they defend so passionately, as in they are classroom teachers that are affected by said policies, the fight would be much more in the deformers faces. We would truly be represented. How about Mulgrew’s salary getting reduced to that of a classroom teachers? How about his remaining union president be dependent upon Danielson’s rubric as decided by a veteran teacher and how said veteran teacher feels about how he has represented us?? He’s a fraud, as is Weingarten, and they both need to go NOW.


    Nicely articulated, Mr. S.

    The following is pretty much the heart of the matter:

    >>>Randi Weingarten and Michael Mulgrew have not been classroom teachers for a very long time. When they speak about standards or evaluations they do not do so from first-hand experience. They don’t know what it is like to have to follow failed policies, which you know harm your pedagogy. They haven’t been offended by having their craft reduced to a checklist rubric. >>>>>

    i.e. The people making policy are removed from the reality of the consequences of that policy. Alas, this is true not only of our professional “union leaders”, but at all levels of public education: the further you are removed from reality… the more the system invests you with power.

    Have an idiot with a clipboard and a rubric follow Mr. Mulgrew around all day next Monday and I guarantee you that by next Tuesday the contract (s) between the Danielson Group and NYC DOE will be history.

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