Archives For social justice

"Why are we closing schools? Military spending is out of control"

Our budget priorities may need some adjustment

"the only tired I was, was tired of giving in Rosa Parks"

Words to live by from Rosa Parks

March On Washington

August 14, 2013 — 1 Comment


The Movement of Rank and File Educators encourages all UFT members, education activists, and all those who are concerned about the future of democracy and justice in this country, to attend the March on Washington, DC on August 24th, 2013. UFT members and their guests can travel for free on UFT-sponsored buses (see link below).

Unfortunately, this march is not just a matter of nostalgia. Today, the gains of the Civil Rights Movement are very much under attack, as educators know all too well. School desegregation was one of the central targets of the movement, but is not championed by the courts or by the federal government. Rather, the current policy thrusts — including privatization and the proliferation of charter schools, have demonstrably worsened segregation in urban school districts.

Young people played a heroic role in the Civil Rights Movement — taking the initiative to lead sit ins, freedom rides, marches and demonstrations. Today, young African Americans are vilified, criminalized, over-policed, and surveilled. The acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, will likely motivate thousands more to join the August 24th march to raise their voices against this trend.

As Dr. King warned, “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Along with the attacks on young people, come attacks on adults. Public schools face privatization and educators are facing union busting. Ironically, this agenda is often carried out in the name of the historic African American struggle for Civil Rights. But we cannot forget that the 1963 March on Washington was a march for Jobs and Freedom — it was a marriage of the struggles for racial and economic justice, and unions were central to the movement and to that march.

Then, as now, the struggle to defend unions, to defend the public sector in general, and public education in particular, will be bound up with the struggle for racial justice and to defend the civil rights of young people. Education activists from across the nation will gather in Washington, DC to raise our voices against privatization, against the criminalization of youth, for our union rights and for public education. We hope to see many of MORE’s members and supporters there. Our specific meet-up location in Washington, DC will be published here at the MORE blog a few days before the March.

Get on the bus! Reserve your seat now!

UFT members and their guests can register for free rides on UFT-sponsored buses here

alt="washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless Paulo Freire"

Public school in NYC are a social justice battleground

alt="Resolute Quokka fights for social justice and union democracy"

Adorable marsupials want more relevant, responsive teacher unions too!

alt="organize agitate educate Susan Anthony MORE"

Social Justice Unionism before the term existed

Social Justice Unionism

August 7, 2013 — 3 Comments


By Julie Cavanagh

Teacher/Chapter Leader P.S. 15 Brooklyn

2013 MORE Presidential Candidate for UFT

In the upcoming days, MORE will send a delegation of ten to Chicago for a nationally coordinated and attended Social Justice Unionism Conference.

Social Justice Unionism is a term (and obviously so much more than that) that has been the object of praise, garnered skepticism, and has even been the target of hijacking (note E4E using the language of social justice to promote their policy goals, which are anything but).  There has been struggle and debate within and outside of MORE surrounding our founding as “The Social Justice Caucus of the UFT”.  Discussion has ranged from arguing ‘MORE is not focused on social justice enough’ to ‘MORE is too focused on social justice’.

The conference this month provides an opportunity for our diverse delegation to learn from and with CORE caucus and social justice minded groups and caucuses from around the country as we continue to strive to find the right balance, direction, and next steps here in New York City.  We know one thing for sure, well actually two:  our final destination is Chicago (the transformation of our union) and that in order to achieve this goal we must follow the path Chicago has laid out before us, while also making it our own.

Social Justice Unionism is basically a three legged stool:  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, transparent, and understand that what is good for educators is good for students or as we like to say, “Our Working Conditions are our Students’ Learning Conditions”.

One of the arguments against the social justice union movement is that the UFT and the AFT leadership are social justice minded and that the issue isn’t our union’s lack of advocacy for students and social justice policies, but rather their lack of fight for our members.  The answer to this lies in nuance that both answers the argument and outlines an overarching vision shift that would ultimately protect and improve our profession, our students, and public education.

While it is true that the UFT and AFT will support social justice policy issues such as immigration reform on a national level or an end to stop and frisk on a local level, will occasionally throw out the idea that working conditions and learning conditions are connected, publishes surveys and polls centered on specific policies highlighting the dissatisfaction with, for example, Mayoral Control, the piloting of teacher evaluations based on test scores, the over-emphasis on testing in our schools, and involves itself in political campaigns through endorsements and support, but all of these advocacy points, campaigns, and media blitzes are external.  They by and large are not member-driven and are part of an overarching vision which, at its core, sees the struggle of UFT members as separate from the struggle of our fellow union members and working folks, students, parents, and communities.   Not only this, but often our union supports or capitulates on the very points they publicly criticize and there is a significant lack of alignment when comparing positions taken both publicly and privately.

For example, our union leadership states that Mayoral Control has been a disaster and more than 50% of New Yorkers want it to sunset, but then supports subtle changes to Mayoral Control, rather than eliminating it in favor of greater local control.   Our union leadership has said, and a UFT committee published a report stating, teacher evaluations should not be based on test scores, but they then signed off on Race to The Top which requires teacher evaluations based on test scores.  The leadership of our union states and publishes data that highlights the majority of parents and educators believe children are being over-tested, that there is an over-emphasis on testing, and that this testing craze is hurting children and their teachers, but rather than employ a zero tolerance policy and fight against high stakes testing, our leadership proposes more tests, better tests, and longer trial periods for tests.  The leadership of our union launches costly campaigns to support endorsed candidates, highlighting the importance of elections, but does nothing to address the extremely low voter turnout in our own union elections.  --Listen to what I say, do not watch what I do.

Our union leadership continues to function from a “solutions-driven” unionism vision which results in our union leadership negotiating from the starting point of elected officials and corporate reformers rather than beginning with an agenda that is set by us, the folks on the ground, standing with students, families and communities.  The only “solutions” that are devolved benefit the few and the powerful and the rest of us are told to accept these “solutions” because, “it could have been worse”.

Social Justice Unionism flips the dynamic and changes the conversation.  Rather than being guided by a vision that assumes we must preserve our seat at the table and negotiate the policies that govern our schools, our communities and our lives, at that table; Social Justice Unionists believe sitting down at a table where you and your students are the meal is suicide and instead of cannibalizing and devolving solutions with those who seek to destroy us, we should set our own table with the stakeholders we serve and invite policymakers to join us.  Parents, educators, students and communities have the knowledge, the expertise and the stake in public education and we must fight for the schools our children deserve, the very schools policy-makers and corporate reformers send their children to, but deny ours.

Policy-makers and corporate reformers by and large do not send their children to schools where one public official makes all of the decisions and is accountable to no one.  In fact, parents have strong voice and agency in their schools.  They do not send their children to schools where teachers are judged by test scores, are degraded and told their experience does not matter. In fact, their schools tout their teachers’ experience, do not tie their worth to test scores, and highlight the number of their teachers who are tenured.  They certainly do not send their children to schools that over-test, or for that matter test at all.  In fact, most schools policy-makers and corporate reformers send their children to have small class sizes, well rounded curriculum and shy away from standardized testing.  –Do as I say, not as I do.

Over the last thirty years union membership has declined, the middle-class has shriveled, and the disproportionate distribution of wealth has skyrocketed. This is not coincidence nor casual correlation. Teacher unions stand on the front-lines of the fight for working folks, their -our- families, our children and for the future of our country.  We must not only embrace Social Justice Unionism, but continue to define, refine, and spread it far and wide.  The organization that educators can and must use to stop the tidal wave of education deform destruction is our union.  MORE’s destination this August, and in three years, is Chicago.

*Rethinking Schools outlines the case for social justice unionism in their book, Transforming Teacher Unions (, a founding statement from 1994 can also be found at

Dan Lupkin
Special Education Teacher & UFT Delegate
P.S. 58, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn

I think it was when Bill Thompson walked through the doors of the UFT Delegate Assembly, seconds after we rubber-stamped the Executive Board’s recommendation that the union endorse him for mayor. They had stopped even pretending we had a voice.

At that moment, I knew I couldn’t wait and watch anymore, getting the lay of the land. I needed to act.

It wasn’t out of the blue. This was the final meeting of my first year as a UFT delegate, and I had seen some deeply troubling things. Unaccountable single party rule; dissent suppressed and mocked; a small, privileged clique monopolizing the power flowing from the paychecks, voices, and votes of over a hundred thousand dues-paying members, doling out perks like a medieval lord to his vassals in exchange for their loyalty.

The UFT members I represent, like most of the education professionals I have been lucky enough to work with in various schools over the years, feel largely alienated and apathetic about their union because the leadership has made no effort to engage them. My school is a hotbed of creativity and energy—exciting educational things are happening all the time. The staff will show up for union meetings, but what do the chapter leader and I have to present to them? What has our leadership done that will capture their passion and imagination, mobilize the limitless potential of the rank and file members of the UFT? The truth is that the leadership doesn’t want them roused; informed activists are unpredictable.  Passive dues-payers are safer within the “business union” model favored by the leadership of the UFT.

Even those of us who have been elected to represent our schools have a negligible amount of power within the union. The Unity caucus, currently in control of the union, began as a an explosion of energy and militant action, but more than fifty years of uninterrupted  and unchecked power inevitably leads to paralysis. The ossified power structure of the union has become satisfied, conservative, and unaccountable. Measures in the Delegate Assembly pass with unanimous votes, the token opposition allowed is mocked from the dais and the floor,  and the UFT Elections show positively authoritarian margins of victory combined with turnout numbers you might expect from an off-year, unopposed local election.

Once I saw them in action, once I did my research and traced how things had come to be as they are in the UFT, how Unity had stifled or successfully co-opted all opposition and developed a model dominated by full-time staff and the Executive Board that shut out the voices of the working educators who ARE the UFT, I knew there would be no way I could feel comfortable toeing their line.

But what alternative is there in a union in which power is so closely guarded? I saw the way MORE members were marginalized and snickered at, how the decision-making apparatus of the union is, at all levels, constructed to maintain and monopolize power.  Between the mayoral endorsement and imposition of the new evaluation system, June represented a profound crisis of confidence for me. I felt our union was failing us, garnishing our paychecks with no accountability, presiding over defeat after defeat and shutting out the voices and energy of the rank and file, the only reason the UFT exists at all (something the UFT Executive Board should probably keep in mind).

I was close to despair. It was tempting to give up, go limp, quit the delegate position, stop reading the news, shut the classroom door and teach my kids as best the Department of Education will allow (I teach a high-stakes testing grade, so that’s relative).

During this time of doubt, I heard an interview on WNYC with a nun named Sister Sally Butler who has worked in a housing project in Fort Greene for 45 years. She is a fearless whistleblower, and has faced enormous hostility and push-back  from those in the Church hierarchy who have been embarrassed or inconvenienced by the horrific sexual abuse and cover-ups by priests and their superiors she has dragged into the light of day.  The interviewer asked her:

“Have you ever thought of leaving the Church?”

and Sister Sally answered:

The Church, no. The Church is mine. THEY should leave.”

The humble yet immovable strength in this answer stopped me cold: replace the word “Church” with “union”, and it became startlingly apt to my situation. I do not, in any way, seek to to compare sexual abuse by clergy to anything happening within the UFT. Nor do I want to minimize the suffering of the victims of that abuse. What made the Sister Sally interview so inspiring to me was that she has refused to give up on her mission despite impossible odds, continuing her service from within the organization, even while being undermined by the entrenched, conservative, status quo obsessed hierarchy that is meant to be supporting her. We have our union dues deducted automatically from our paychecks, there is no opting out. Even if there were, it is clear to me that the answer is NOT to run away, to shrink from our responsibilities. More than ever, we need a union to protect the interests of the teachers, the students, and the communities that are being set upon by “reformers” at all levels who want to suck public education dry and sell off the skeleton to the higher bidder.

The solution is NOT to throw up our hands and declare that Unity is just too powerful, too established, too connected to allow the UFT to become a true, democratic vehicle for the voices and aspirations of the education professionals and stakeholders of the New York City public schools.

The solution is to stand up, refuse to surrender to despair, and do the hard work it takes to mobilize the capable, passionate, brilliant educators and stakeholders in this city and beyond… and I have come to believe that MORE is the vehicle for that effort.

We have the example of Sister Sally Butler to inspire us, and recent successes in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Newark to show us that it CAN be done, that seemingly invincible foes CAN be brought to heel through nothing more than people power and the will to make things better.

MORE is happy to announce that Dan has joined our social media team and will be posting for us on Facebook.


The International Dreamers Scholarship Fund

By Rosie Frascella

MORE  Planning Committee member

Many people in and around MORE ask, what is a social justice union and what exactly does it do?

I teach at the International High School at Prospect Heights, which is a school designed to support recent immigrant arrivals adjust to school and life in New York City.  As an 11th grade English teacher and adviser, much of my time is spent attempting to convince students that college could be a reality for them.  Unfortunately, I watch many students receive internships, acceptance to college programs, summer jobs, and scholarships while their undocumented counterparts are told they cannot apply.

It is heartbreaking to watch students internalize the unfair reality that they do not have the same rights or opportunities as their peers and the only justification we can give is that we live in an unjust world.  As social justice organizers we cannot sit around and feel powerless when faced with an unfair world but instead channel our rage into action by empowering each other with a sense purpose.

Over the past month, my coworkers and school allies formed a social justice union within our school to fight for a common cause by starting a scholarship fund to help our undocumented students go to college.  Through the unity we build we were able to problem solve ways to address the needs of our undocumented students, one of our most vulnerable populations.

Our school community has never been so united as the school staff, community allies, and loved ones have been meeting after work and on weekends to make our dream a reality.  This is the work of a social justice union, a group of educators and community members coming together to address inequality and believing in the power of one another to create change.  Many New York City teachers do not see our union as a vehicle for change and it is critical that we continue to lead by example and re-imagine the potential of collective action.

Please join our efforts to raise $40,000 by June 1st in order to send at least one undocumented student from our graduating class to college in September.  Please give anything you can. Your donations will be the difference between a young dreamer going to college or not. If you were lucky enough to have the opportunity to pursue your dreams, pay it forward today.

Donate now to The International Dreamers Scholarship Fund, by going to the North Star Fund web-site, and designating the International Dreamers Scholarship Fund as the recipient of your gift.

The International Dreamers Scholarship Fund is a 501(c)(3) charity administered by the North Star Fund.

Jullie Cavanagh Speech at “The Schools New York’s Children Deserve” from Grassroots Education Movement on Vimeo.

Sunday April 14th 2013