by Vincent Wojsnis
Anyone who knows me knows that among the things I really care about are teaching social studies and working for the United Federation of Teachers*. I am a New York City teacher but I am also a union activist and for me, the struggle to defend public education and trade unionism are one and the same. As a teacher, I believe a good, free public education, available to all, is a goal worth fighting for. I also realize that belonging to a strong union allows me to advocate for my students as well as for our members.
I’ve been a chapter leader, a delegate, an arbitration advocate. In 2009 I joined other UFT members to help organize teachers for the AFT in Texas. My union activity was recognized by the union leadership later that year when I was received a Trachtenberg Award as well as a UFT Partnership Award that I shared with my former principal. I am proud of it all. The roots of my activism began when the NYC Department of Education decided to close my former school, MS 399 in the Bronx, a school where I worked for nearly a decade. From that point on, I decided that I would “fight back” by doing what I could to build this union.
Until recently, however, to anyone who’d ask me to which caucus I belonged I would simply say, “UFT.” So-called “in fighting” within the union, it seemed to me, was factional and counter-productive. I no longer feel that way. The extreme agenda advanced by the so-called “education reform movement” and our union leadership’s weak (often questionable) response to it has made me a partisan. Earlier this year, concerned over the direction that the union leadership was taking both in New York and nationally, a group of UFT members joined together and formed the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) as an alternative caucus within the UFT. I joined the MORE Caucus because I believe that union has to go in a different direction.
For more than fifty years the majority Unity Caucus has controlled the UFT leadership. And while it is true that under Unity, the union has won significant rights and benefits for our members, the unprecedented, persistent assault on our union by the right wing in both major political parties has led to an erosion of those rights and benefits. Their so-called “reforms” include attacks on tenure, seniority and the right to due process. They have sought to undermine our pensions. Their new evaluation process overwhelmingly and unfairly relies on data derived from standardized test scores.
The MORE Caucus calls for fair and improved contract, without givebacks, that protects and preserves our rights and benefits. We are calling for a union-wide discussion and vote on any agreement on a new teacher evaluation process. We reject any agreement that would include a test-based evaluation. Moreover, we believe that the fight for a fair contract begins now by mobilizing our members and not solely relying on the courts or waiting for a new administration to take office.
The so-called “reformers” have cynically misrepresented their efforts by proclaiming that it is all in “best interests of children,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Their so-called “reforms” would increase in class sizes, where no child would get the kind of attention they deserve. Their special education reforms have reduced services for those students who most need them. By placing a disproportionate emphasis on reading and math scores they have narrowed the curriculum by eliminating or greatly reducing a curriculum that includes social studies, the arts, physical education and extra-curricular activities.
As the social justice caucus of the UFT, MORE stands with our communities against the corporate takeover of our public schools. We oppose the theft of public space and resources by privately-run charter schools co-located in public school buildings. We call for an end to high-stake testing and the restoration of a broad and robust curriculum. We advocate for our students by demanding smaller class sizes and that every child with special needs receive the services that they need and deserve.
Mayoral control under Michael Bloomberg has been a disaster for NYC children. How obscene is it for the mayor to undermine the very school system he was entrusted to protect? Though it has sought to modify the state law that gives the mayor total control of the public schools, under Unity, the current UFT leadership supports mayoral control of the public schools. As a former District Rep once told me, “mayoral control was here to stay because no mayor would give up that much power.” If it has proven anything, after more than a decade of mayoral control under Bloomberg, it is that it is too much power to be held by one mayor. Yet, in school districts across the country, school boards are still elected by members of the community for candidates (mostly parents) who seek to have a voice in education policy. This is particularly true in affluent, suburban, mostly white school districts. Meanwhile, school districts in big cities (New York, Chicago, Detroit, etc.) have been placed under control either by the mayor or an “educational management organizations” made up of business people with little or no stake in the schools they govern. Are not parents of urban, less affluent communities of color entitled to the same rights as affluent suburban communities?
I joined MORE because MORE calls for an end to mayoral control of the public schools and the restoration of popular control through democratically elected school boards.
Under mayoral control hundreds of qualified teachers have had to re-apply for jobs they’ve already had. Through school closings, the elimination of programs and a narrowing of the curriculum, these teachers have been placed on the Absent Teacher Reserve. The difficulties many have had finding permanent positions have had less to do with their qualifications and more to do with their age, their salaries and whether or not they are tenured.
The mayor, the chancellor and media have maligned these colleagues as “bad teachers” and “overpaid subs.” Anyone of us could be an “ATR” tomorrow. A union resolution passed last spring called for providing assistance and training to help excessed teachers but the resolution fell far short of resolving the real problem which is the current system that keeps qualified teachers in a kind of institutional “limbo.” There is no reason that any qualified teacher should remain in excess especially when there are positions available in any school.
I joined MORE because MORE calls for an end of the so-called “free market” system that is the ATR along with the creation of a sub-class of teachers whose rights are routinely violated as a result.
To achieve these goals we deserve a union that is democratic and transparent. We intend to fight for these goals by running our own candidates in the upcoming UFT elections in the spring. These are the main reasons I joined the MORE Caucus. I urge you to join us and support our candidates and platform. To learn more about MORE go to the following links:
I also recommend you see the film, The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman – Now Online at: http://gemnyc.org/our-film/
Vincent C. Wojsnis,
UFT Chapter Leader, Antonia Pantoja Prep. Academy