Interview with a chapter leader

As part of our work to build rank-and-file power within the UFT, MORE is encouraging our members to run for Chapter Leader and Delegate positions. Below is an interview with Mike Stivers, Chapter Leader at Millennium Brooklyn High School, about why he ran, what challenges and rewards the position has presented, and why people should run for these positions if they want to build a better union and a better city.

What does being a chapter leader mean to you?

Being a chapter leader means being the primary rank and file organizer of your school. It means serving as a node in the larger ecosystem of the union, but perhaps the most crucial one for building a union that derives its power from its members.

What made you interested in running?

I’ve always believed unions were important, and knew I wanted to be involved, but really it was seeing the chapter leader before me take what I believed was an approach that was too risk-averse. So often members hear from the union why certain things are not possible. I wanted to be more creative in finding ways to say things were possible, or at least that we would try.

What are some organizing wins for your chapter?

I’m proud of our chapter’s work on rallying for paid parental leave, securing repairs for poor building conditions, and effectively implementing the new contract. More so than any single win, what I’m most proud of were the way in which we won certain things - when our consultation committee tried to speak to every member of the chapter to get a sense of how many people actually had experienced a particular problem, then discussed it at a chapter meeting, heard each others’ concerns, and collectively decided on a strategy to address the issue. Sometimes we disagreed along the way, and it took longer than I would have liked for us to decide on a strategy, but ultimately that is because we were making that decision together, rather than relying on only my point of view or anyone on staff at the union. These types of wins are also meaningful because while I may think I have an idea of a strategy and tactics to pursue, my coworkers often convince me to take different tacks. This approach takes much more time and work, but I find it’s more effective in actually getting issues addressed.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of becoming chapter leader?

I would say that it’s probably going to take a little while to change the balance of power between the chapter and administration, but what you can change immediately is the way the union feels to your coworkers. If your chapter leader uses meetings to simply talk at you, you can change that at your first meeting. If your chapter leader limits what information people know about his or her conversations with the principal or district rep, you can start sharing that information as soon as you become CL. I would also say it’s a constant process to gain the trust and confidence of your coworkers. Your principal has a lot of power in the school and they can and do build support for themselves amongst your coworkers. You can’t take it for granted that members will side with you because you happen to pay dues to the same union.

What are the most important responsibilities of a CL, in your experience?

You have to think of yourself as the primary organizer of your chapter, but not the only organizer. Really what you do is build an organizing committee in the chapter by determining who is committed, respected, and skilled, and that larger layer of leaders in your school then become the key people that organize everyone else. There are a lot of technical and administrative tasks that only the CL can do and if you want to do good organizing it's just not feasible to do it all yourself. Everything else you do should flow from this premise.

Holding regular, democratic, member-led chapter meetings and consultation meetings are key. Defending members in disciplinary conferences is extremely important. Educating members about how to protect themselves from the DOE going after their job in the myriad of ways that they can is also crucial. You can play a significant role in whether someone keeps their livelihood or not. Of course ensuring people are paid accurately and on time is also important.

What are some of the challenges you have faced? What support did you receive?

I would say the biggest challenge has been in thinking strategically about what issues are the biggest priorities and worth organizing around at any given moment. Members don’t have unlimited time and capacity to be involved (and neither should CLs), so we need to think about where best to place that energy.

The best support I’ve received has been cultivating a network of other chapter leaders, especially veteran CLs, who have been through these struggles before. MORE is a great place to find that. You need to have sounding boards who can listen to you and ask you the right questions to know if you are pursuing the best strategy. Sometimes you aren’t, but sometimes you are, and you need to have that confirmed by more seasoned organizers than yourself.

What are some things you wish you knew when you were running?

I wish I knew exactly how many hats you have to wear as chapter leader. You are involved in payroll, health and safety, programming, discipline, and so much more. It’s a lot to manage, but it also nudges you to delegate some of these responsibilities (many portions of the contract say “by the chapter leader or their designee”).

What are the rewarding aspects of being CL?

I find that people respect the role of the CL and see you as a leader in the school almost immediately upon assuming the title, and it only grows as you accumulate experience organizing alongside and advocating for others. It’s been very rewarding to see people identify the positive results of an organizing approach to school based issues. The union trains CLs to be individuals who know the rules and apply the rules effectively. That’s important, but more important is knowing how to bring your coworkers together to collectively address shared issues. I find most people recognize when you’re doing a good job and will tell you so.

How does being CL empower you to activate and educate your coworkers?

For better or worse, most rank and file members identify you as the face of the union in their school and will trust your perspective on issues. Aside from your principal, you are the person with the most leverage to change the balance of power in your school. Running for chapter leader is a big decision, but I think it’s without a doubt the most impactful thing you can do to strengthen your chapter, not to mention a great opportunity to help turn the union at large into a fighting force.