Late on the Thursday afternoon before spring break 15 teachers gathered around a long table in the back corner of a tapas bar in Chelsea.
Faced with a daily grind of standardized test prep, performance metrics, data management and pervasive job insecurity that increasingly defines their existence as teachers, they were looking forward to a week’s respite. But, they were also discussing this April’s elections in the United Federation of Teachers and how they might be able to rejuvenate a union that they say has failed to effectively resist the corporate-style education reforms that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has implemented over the past 12 years.
“Resistance is not futile if we join forces with the people in the communities we serve,” said Sean Ahern, a teacher who works with troubled youth at Rikers Island, as the group went around the table introducing themselves and describing the teaching work they do.
The happy hour gathering was organized by the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), an opposition caucus that is battling the UFT’s entrenched leadership. The union is seeing growing discontent among the rank-and-file as members are battered by the changes Bloomberg and his corporate allies have implemented. The meetup was a chance for teachers who are starting to become involved to meet with colleagues who are already active in MORE.
“Teachers are scared. The UFT can’t protect them, which is why people are looking more favorably on MORE,” said Gloria Brandman, a Brooklyn elementary school teacher and one of MORE’s co-founders.
That message resonated with Henry Funes, a 25-year teaching veteran. “I’ve never seen it as bad as this. We’re virtually powerless and voiceless,” Funes said. “The UFT’s attitude is, ‘be grateful you have a job.’”
MORE was formed last year by members of several left-leaning teacher groups. Many MORE members have joined protests in recent years against school closings and charter school co-locations inside existing public schools carried out by the NYC Department of Education. In the 170,000-member UFT, they see an institution with the resources and the citywide reach into school communities to lead a powerful fightback against Bloomberg’s policies — including mayoral control of schools — which have proven increasingly unpopular with parents. But first, they say, the UFT must transform itself and become an organization that fully encourages member participation and forges strong ties with the communities it serves.
“The membership is not educated, organized and mobilized, and that has hurt us,” said Julie Cavanagh, an elementary school special education teacher who is MORE’s candidate for president against UFT chief Michael Mulgrew.
Cavanagh’s candidacy is a by-product of New York’s school wars. She first became politicized several years ago when she led a community struggle in Red Hook against a politically-connected charter school that was looking to take over much of the school where she teaches.
Campaigning with minimal resources, MORE has held happy hour gatherings like the one in Chelsea, organized public forums to discuss issues of importance to educators, set up social media sites and email lists, and distributed tens of thousands of flyers to members at school campuses. It’s this kind of patient, bottom-up organizing that MORE activists hope will enable them to make inroads this year against the Unity Caucus, which has controlled the UFT since shortly after its founding in 1960.
“They [MORE] are bringing the message that you are not alone to teachers who want to resist,” says Lois Weiner, a professor of education at New Jersey University and the author of The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice. Voting in the elections runs from April 3 to 25.
For inspiration, MORE looks to the militant Chicago Teachers Union and the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), the left caucus that vaulted into power in 2010. CORE’s victory was fueled by rank-and-file dissatisfaction with the response of union leaders to attacks on Chicago’s public school system by city leaders. Before taking the helm at CTU, teachers from CORE had spent years fighting alongside parent and community groups to prevent schoolclosings. When the CTU launched a week-long strike last September, parents, students and community members poured into the streets to show their support for the teachers forcing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to settle a favorable contract with the union.
However, circumstances are different in the two cities.
In New York, the legacy of the racially-charged 1968 teachers strike carried out across the city by the UFT to squash an experiment with community control of schools in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Ocean Hill-Brownsville still lingers over the union 45 years later like an unacknowledged curse.
In Chicago, the CTU’s previous incumbents were poorly organized whereas the UFT has been controlled by the Unity Caucus for half a century.
“There is a mass machine that has to be battled at the school level and the district level,” said Norm Scott, a retired teacher and education blogger who is active in MORE.
Despite all its top-down power, the UFT has little impact in the daily life of many of the city’s 1,700 public schools. With MORE’s chances of victory in this election almost nil, organizers see this year’s campaign as an opportunity to build a school-level network of supporters that can continue to grow and win more chapter elections in 2015 and pose a stronger challenge in the next union-wide elections in 2016. Their success will be determined to a large extent by their ability to connect with and move union members who do not already self-identify as leftists.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” Cavanagh said. “We’ll be in a much stronger place in three years.”