NYSUT’s VOTE-COPE “Campaign” Highlights What is Wrong with NYSUT

Two years ago, with NYSUT’s failure to oppose Governor Cuomo serving as “the straw that broke the camel’s back” PJSTA members followed the lead of their officers and stopped contributing to VOTE-COPE, the statewide union’s voluntary political action fund.  PJSTA President Beth Dimino has been vocal in describing her reasons for not contributing and this has drawn the ire of many Unity Caucus loyalists.  You’ll surely recall that last year Unity (the controlling caucus within NYSUT) used it’s blog to launch a personal attack at Dimino, labeling her “anti-union” among other things.

So this year NYSUT decided it’d try to step around Dimino in an attempt to solicit VOTE-COPE contributions from the PJSTA membership by sending out a form letter to each of our members asking for us to give to VOTE-COPE this year.  I want to be clear here… I do not have a problem with the leadership stepping around Ms. Dimino to approach our members about this.  The PJSTA membership made a strong statement about their confidence in NYSUT’s political action work when our members made their decisions to reduce their VOTE-COPE contributions to $0.  I would expect that to catch the attention of NYSUT leadership and I would expect them to want to contact those members about their decision.

The problem I have with their tactic comes in their chosen form of communication.  Nearly two full years after reducing our contributions, leadership’s response was to send each of our members a form letter.  There was no attempt to engage our members in discussion about our decision.  No reaching out to gauge our feelings on our statewide union, or to ask how they can better represent us.  No discussions about the broken union structures that lead to disengaged members.  No explanations for why they have generously donated to ed deformers like Andrew Cuomo and John Flanagan.  Just a simple form letter asking us to give them more money.  To be frank I found it insulting.  The idea that a form letter with all the usual rhetoric was going to suddenly sway me was simply astounding.

After reflecting on it, I think this incident really highlights some of the major problems with our statewide union.  Virtually all contact I have ever had with NYSUT is one-way communication where messages from the top are relayed down to me.  There is nearly zero back and forth.  No chance to engage our leaders in discussion about the state of our union.  No visits from the NYSUT officers to our schools to ask questions or to simply listen.  Sending form letters to request greater VOTE-COPE contributions is the very essence of top down unionism.  It’s ineffective, expensive, and does nothing to serve our members.

The fact that this happens is the result of of a broken union structure.  Andy Pallotta’s PAC work has resulted in teachers being held “accountable” via junk science through poorly constructed teacher evaluations over the past several years.  However there is no accountability for Andy Pallotta.  I am not sure whether or not STCaucus plans to run a slate in the coming NYSUT elections, but it doesn’t really matter.  Pallotta will run again for a NYSUT officer position again this spring and he will win.  This will likely be the case for a few of our other officers as well.  They are in a situation where they can’t lose because they will have the endorsement of the Unity Caucus.  In NYSUT’s rigged system of democracy the only thing that matters is the Unity endorsement.  The will of the members won’t matter.  The PJSTA membership’s VOTE-COPE reduction, which essentially amounted to a vote of no confidence in our leadership, won’t even be a blip on the radar when it comes to the election.

This is the type of stuff that turns people off to unions.  This is why it gets easy to become disengaged and apathetic.  I’ve had a lot of discussions about this sort of scenario with members across the state.  I’ll close with the gist of what I put in an email earlier today to one of those members about the only way I see to go forward and the only way that I can see transforming our union…

I think the way forward is to take our focus off of resolutions, leadership positions, and the NYSUT bureaucracy and focus solely on engaging and organizing the rank and file.  I think an engaged and active R&F will ultimately have a greater impact on the state’s public ed landscape than having a great leader at the top working within the same structure that has lead to a disengaged and apathetic membership to begin with.  By grassroots organizing you can ultimately increase your leadership capacity across the state and begin to cultivate local leaders who will challenge for leadership and delegate positions in areas that have traditionally been Unity strongholds (Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Yonkers, UUP, PSC, etc.).  That is how you ultimately might win leadership positions within NYSUT.  More importantly, in the process, you will have organically grown an engaged, fighting union who is more powerful than we have ever knowN it to be.  It is a long slog for sure, with a tremendous number of obstacles in the way, and it requires the sort of person-to-person organizing that is neither glamorous or rapid in nature, but I believe it is the only way forward for us.

 

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Beth Dimino Letter to NYSUT Officers

Dear NYSUT Officers,
On behalf of the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association, I wish to alert you to our concern about your approach to the NYSUT/PSA negotiations. It appears to the PJSTA that you are needlessly and recklessly creating a dispute with the bargaining unit and, as a consequence, threatening the services provided to the PJSTA on a daily basis. We ask that you treat PSA with the respect it deserves and work diligently to find solutions to this contract dispute that will not imperil the delivery of NYSUT services to my local by the PSA staff.

The PJSTA is also concerned about your misrepresentation of NYSUT’s financial situation at the most recent Representative Assembly, where no mention of any pension crisis was mentioned. I know that the officers are provided routine reports on the NYSUT pension as required by law, so we are confused as to why the long-term pension cost suddenly became a crisis. Your actions leave the PJSTA wondering where the truth lies and whether we can trust your financial representations to your dues-paying members.

It is our expectation that you work with PSA in a way that would be viewed as a model to the labor movement and refrain from adopting the tired and unproductive behavior of our worst employers. We demand that you work to conclude this contract dispute in a way that will not further embarrass that PJSTA and will not interrupt the crucial services that PSA members provide.

In Solidarity,

Beth Dimino, PJSTA President

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Summer Musings Part II- Examining Our Union Structures

empowering_teachers

Last week I published my “Summer Musings Part I” post in which I posed a number of questions…

As I begin to wrap my head around the idea of the 2016-2017 school year, I do so with the question in mind of how do we raise teacher voice across New York State and beyond?  How do we empower our members at the very grassroots level?  How do we better engage our membership at the local, state, and national levels in a way that allows the members to drive the union agendas?  How do we create union cultures that encourage membership participation and what exactly does that participation look like?  How do we create times and places to facilitate discussions among the rank and file about what our unions are vs. what they actually should be?  How do we build more democratic unions and how do we overcome the obstacles that stand in the path of union democracy?  How do we turn our unions from passive unions or unions who simply mobilize around top down mandates into unions who have rank and file organizing at the very heart of their operation?

Like our many readers assuredly have (haha), I’ve been giving a good deal of thought to those questions over the past week or so.  Several of those questions tend to overlap with each other, so I am not necessarily going to write to each of those questions, but more share some of the thoughts that have been running through my head as I ponder those questions.

One concept that I keep coming back to is the concept of union structures.  It seems to me that the structures of our unions, in many cases, are prohibitive to what a union’s goals should be.

An empowered rank and file should ultimately be the result of of a membership who has had ample opportunity to engage with one another and with union leadership on what their shared values are and on what they expect from their union in regards to those values.  These opportunities for engagement should be frequent, whether they be causal or formal meetings, and should allow for deep and meaningful thought and discussion from all parties.  They should allow for participants to ponder the causes of issues that effect our schools and communities along with the long term implications of these issues or potential plans of action.  Meetings such as these, with no dominant voice, rather a respectful exchange of ideas from all participants, allow all members to have a greater role.  They allow the union to move forward as a collective, organized around a set of shared values, rather than as a leadership pulling a membership along.

In smaller locals like ours it is more common to witness these sorts of structures.  While the PJSTA certainly isn’t structured like my ideal scenario above, we do have regular building meetings where members are free to express concerns and share opinions.  Our leadership is in the schools every day, not only available to have personal and informal conversations with the membership, but in the trenches teaching with the same working conditions that our members are.  As a vice-president who is largely tasked with coordinating our local’s organizing endeavors, it is my personal goal to move us more in the direction of my stated ideal above.

Often where structures really start to become problematic are in larger locals, like the ones often found in cities, and in our statewide and national unions.  The larger the union, it seems, the more problematic we find the union structures.  Let’s take NYSUT, our statewide union, as an example.  I am wracking my brain and I can’t, for the life of me, recall a time that NYSUT asked me, as a rank and file member, what issues were important to me.  I can’t recall a time where they have provided space for in depth discussion between members on the issues that we face or on more philosophical ideas about how our union should function.  Virtually all of my interaction with NYSUT throughout my 14 years as a member has been different varieties of one-way communication.  I have received mandates from the leadership on what I should fax or email, what I should say to my elected officials, who I should vote for, or scripts I should read to others on the phone.  This is literally the opposite of empowering.  Rather it sends the message to me as a member that my ideas and opinions are inconsequential and that engaging me isn’t important.  I simply exist as a tool to do the bidding of our leadership.

In January I emailed NYSUT President Karen Magee with questions along these lines and I was basically told it was none of my business.  There have been very few times in my career when a NYSUT officer has visited our local and when they have it was never to engage the membership, only to talk at them and then usually ask for an increase in VOTE-COPE contributions.

When I attend the RA as a delegate most of the discussion centers around resolutions brought to the floor.  Precious little debate takes place before a Unity Caucus member typically calls the question to shut down discussion and then the motion is voted on.  If you are not first on line (out of more than 2,000 delegates) at a microphone to speak, it usually means you don’t get to speak.  In general the resolutions are fairly meaningless to the general membership anyway (Quick, count how many NYSUT resolutions have impacted you in the classroom?  I bet you can count them on one hand!)  The rest of the RA typically consists of the VOTE-COPE guy asking us to give more VOTE-COPE, and maybe a candidate our leadership is pushing who talks at us (this year it was Hillary Clinton).

I can go on and on about the issues I have with NYSUT, but I don’t think that’s necessary.  Clearly NYSUT is very top down in nature and it’s entire structure stifles discussion about the issues that effect us and does more to encourage members to disengage than it does to empower them.  The same can be said about the AFT on the national level.

What I find to be most appalling is that these sorts of structures typically tend to be by design.  I don’t believe that the leaders of NYSUT and the AFT are necessarily interested in hearing from the membership.  I don’t believe that they are actively seeking out ways to empower and engage the rank and file.  I don’t think that they have any interest in establishing rules that make our unions more democratic.  To do any of these things would be to put themselves and the power that they have accrued at risk.  It would endanger their seat at the table.  To be honest, there are not many people who would want to give up salaries of hundreds of thousands of dollars, expense accounts, double pensions, and seats at national conventions.  The bigger problem is the structures that are put in place allowing these leaders to run our unions as they do for an indefinite period of time without having to answer to the membership in a meaningful way.  When you allow those in power to make the rules and create the structures, these are the sorts of situations you find yourself in.

There are no easy solutions to this problem and there are no shortcuts.  Electing new leadership (virtually impossible in NYSUT because of the elections rigged in favor of whomever Unity Caucus endorses) isn’t a real solution due to the likelihood of new leaders falling into the same traps as previous ones due to the fact that they are operating within the same flawed structure.  Any structure that relies upon humans resisting the temptation to be bought off is likely doomed to fail.

In June I was sitting in a meeting with members of other locals and the topic of our flawed leadership came up.  How they haven’t done enough to help us in regards to certain issues. While I agree to an extent, I don’t find the individual leaders to be the problem.  It isn’t Karen Magee, Andy Pallotta, or Mike Mulgrew.  It’s the union structure that has allowed it to happen.  You can plug in virtually anyone and get very similar results.  Which is why the answer is not changing leadership.

I firmly believe that the answer to the problem of our union structures begins in our schools at the worksite.  It starts with building new structures within our buildings and locals that are more democratic in nature and that empower our membership.  When we create organizing unions that emphasize democracy and teacher empowerment we create an extremely powerful union and the leadership ultimately doesn’t matter.  It isn’t easy and it isn’t glamorous and it is often tedious.  But it is the most important work that a union can do.  If this sort of work were done extensively statewide, our statewide union would ultimately change.

So join me this year in working to reshape your unions.  We’ll be working on ways to better engage members in deeper discussions, identify shared values, and empower members.  Feel free, as always, to share your ideas with us!

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Jia Lee Reports on AFT Convention

The PJSTA did not send our delegates to the AFT Convention this year.  So I asked our friend Jia Lee to share her observations of the convention with us.  They will be published elsewhere as well.  Here are Jia’s take aways from the convention…

AFT July 2016- Observations of a Rank and File Member

By Jia Lee

UFT Chapter Leader of The Earth School

Every two years, the American Federation of Teachers, convenes to address proposals for resolutions and positions we take as a national union. Seven non-Unity members from New York City, headed to Minneapolis, for the AFT convention on its 100th Anniversary. Arthur Goldstein of MORE and Jonathan Halabi of New Action, two of the seven newly elected high school executive board members, joined Norm Scott to report the events from the press section. You can find the links to their blogs below. Gloria Brandman, Lisa North and Gladys Sotomayor, all veterans of NYC public schools and members of MORE were present at general sessions, leafletting and networking with members from other locals. For me, being present in this space to support the reporting out of what goes on is just as important as being in solidarity with locals who need to know that there are other voices coming out of NYC besides that of the Unity stronghold.

 

To put things into perspective, while it is important to know how issues are brought to the convention and subsequently, how decisions are made, it is even more important to understand how immensely it connects to rank and file members back at home. We are the untapped power. For those of us who know little to nothing about how it works, here’s a little overview:

Out of 2,608 delegates in the AFT, representing locals from New York to California, the UFT sends 750 delegates to this level of our union. Yes, this is very NYC heavy. With the small number of delegates from the rest of New York State, many of whom are unable to afford the trip, our representation is often viewed as insurmountable. Delegates from different locals meet in nine different committees where most resolutions are debated and voted on. In between, there are general sessions where all delegates come together to debate and vote on the top three resolutions as a body, special acknowledgements and elections for AFT officers and panel presentations. The seven of us carried visitor passes since we are not elected delegates but we are AFT members via our local.

As one can imagine, there are many orders of business and activities that we could share, but here are three stark take-aways about the purposeful lack of democracy from this convention everyone should know, as dues paying members.

1. Our UFT Constitution needs to be amended. We handed out a MORE -AFT 2016 Edition flier explaining to fellow AFT members that while our high school exec board candidates won seats, they do not carry AFT delegate status. It is written in our constitution that winner takes all. This, in fact, ignores the fact that we won nearly 30% of the votes. When we tell this to other unions, many are surprised. Delegates from other locals reported that these positions are voted on separately. Why was this written into our constitution one may ask? It clearly ensures a block vote. The implications call for a change to representational percentages amongst delegates

2. The UFT/Unity does in fact control NYSUT, and this needs to change. It seems that to dominate the national scene, it is imperative for the largest local to also control the state. We learned that Ed Representatives which represent districts across the state, are nearly all Unity. It was written into the constitution at the state level that ed representatives do not have to necessarily live in the region it purportedly represents; therefore, Unity can and has put up their own candidates when they feel like. Because of the loyalty oath and disproportionate number of delegates we represent, whoever Unity puts in, is guaranteed a win. This contributes to the unfair advantage at the state and national levels. Locals across the state find this frustratingly unfair and undemocratic.

It plays out in divisive ways by creating an imbalance in representation electorally and subsequently has consequences at the state and at the national level. At this year’s AFT convention, at the convening of the Educational Issues Committee, something disturbing occurred. Almost everyone knows that NYSUT (our state union) passed Stronger Together’s (ST caucus)  proposed resolution on opt out called I-Refuse at last year’s state-wide convention. A version of this was prepared by a committee within NYSUT for the AFT convention. It was printed in the resolutions packet on the first day of the AFT.

Just moments before raising the resolution, Karen Magee, our NYSUT president pulled out a substitute resolution that was entirely different from the original. Even the title was changed from “Support the I-Refuse Movement to Oppose High Stakes Testing” to “End the Misuse of Testing and Support Teacher and Parent Rights.” In effect, all of the strong and actionable resolves of the former resolution were removed and in its place was a much diluted version that upheld standardized tests as useful when not misused and supported the rights of parents to opt their children out of the tests and for teachers to explain these rights without fear of penalty. It did not support teachers as agents of change as the I-Refuse resolution did. Jilted, fellow NYSUT members of the ST caucus objected to the substitution which was overruled. The Unity stronghold had prepared for this, keeping the ST members in the dark. The substitute resolution passed.

3. AFT Leadership controls the membership. This must change. We are a top down driven union. The international relations and domestic positions of the Democratic Party, and specifically Hillary Clinton (who was present and gave a very disappointing speech about supporting public charter schools) shaped the convention. It was tightly controlled.

For instance, during the debate over the resolution to support the teachers of Oaxaca who have risen in massive numbers to strike against the privatization of their public schools, a teacher from California rose to distinguish, for members, the difference between supporting the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE) and the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE). The national union El SNTE has been in collusion with the government in its attack on teachers in Oaxaca, resulting in the violence that has led to the killings of teachers. She went on to state that the blood of those teachers would be on the AFT if it supported the SNTE.

Mary Cathryn Ricker,  AFT Vice President, rose to speak against this. She said that it was not true, “The SNTE is not responsible…” This red herring argument derailed what the teacher was stating. Though the SNTE may not be responsible, they have been in collusion. For those who are not as informed, this was enough to downplay this very real problem.

In the “Fighting for Safe Communities and Racial Justice for Our Citizens and our First Responders” I was very intrigued to find that the resolution included lines that members found problematic. For instance, “Whereas, the AFT supports all police officers who perform the duty of serving us daily in the name of public safety;” and “Resolved, that the AFT will collaborate with unions representing police and public safety officers in the law enforcement community to advocate for fair policing through greater transparency and accountability, which will lead to safer communities;” was heavily debated on the floor. In a following analysis, I will share some ideas on how this debate detracts from the discussion needed to understand the fundamental changes needed to shift a culture of implicit racial bias and machismo (or patriarchy) that create conditions for disproportionate targeting and brutality of Black community members. One member pointed out that just as there is a police union, union members are victims of brutality. There is so much more to this issue than what lies on the surface, but it will not be discussed at an AFT convention.

However, at the AFT, the chair took liberties that clearly did not follow Robert’s Rules of Order, and at times, it seemed fair and at other times, it was clearly strategically unfair. In the end, the resolutions passed as intended, without the fortitude to muster true alliances and actions to enact real change to our daily lives as teachers. I should add that watching Randi Weingarten, the AFT president, chair all general sessions, was exhausting. She must control the pulpit, and this is, not so oddly, familiar. The Clinton endorsement shaped the landscape and, as usual, the leadership subdued the membership. The work of maintaining control at the NYC level contributes to maintaining the whims of a very ambitious and relentless AFT president.

In reflective conversations with folks from other unions at the UCORE event, it was said on multiple occasions that at the end of the day, resolutions are a piece of paper. Instead, we discussed the need for a different vision of unionism as we build our base, member by member, school by school. This requires that we continue to do the kind of self education and teach ins on the issues that slipped so easily through at the AFT. Envisioning a different way to enact democracy within our union is a must, or we are in danger of replicating the undemocratic ways of our present and past. What this means involves a real analysis of how race relations have played out through the positions of union leaders, as well as, developing structures different from the ones we know.

Catch Norm’s Reporting

And Arthur’s observations:

http://nyceducator.com/2016/07/from-aft-2016-resistance-is-futile.html

http://nyceducator.com/2016/07/uft-folk-do-darndest-things.html

http://nyceducator.com/2016/07/clinton-at-aft-lets-learn-from-public.html

http://nyceducator.com/2016/07/in-which-uft-unity-member-lectures-me.html

http://nyceducator.com/2016/07/social-justice-is-for-everyone.html

http://nyceducator.com/2016/07/mulgrew-demands-apology-for-my-little.html

http://nyceducator.com/2016/07/happy-days-redux.html

Jonathan: https://jd2718.org/

 

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Summer Musings, Part I

Last school year was a particularly taxing year, for a number of reasons, both professionally and otherwise.  It left me wiped out and completely fried by the time we reached the last day of school.  So I took the first two weeks of my summer to pretty much disconnect from the education world.  No blog reading, public ed tweeting, or conversations with Beth Dimino.  Outside of fishing with a couple of my PJSTA brothers, I was totally disconnected from my normal work, which is very rare for me.

Two weeks ago, however, I had lunch (Korean BBQ for those of you wondering) with a couple of my friends from MORE, Jia Lee and Mike Schirtzer and it helped to re-energize my passion for the organizing work that we do.  Part of the overwhelming feelings that I had at the end of the school year dealt with the feelings that there were battles being waged on so many different fronts and it can become really exhausting.  There are the opt-out battles, the battles for democracy within NYSUT, the work to try and build STCaucus into a more member centered caucus, the importance of the November elections on both a state and national level, the work that came with being a member of the PJSTA negotiating team that settled our contract in June, along with the many other issues that we deal with.

So upon arriving at lunch with Jia and Mike, I declared to them that I had given very little thought to public ed and unions over the previous two weeks.  Fortunately they are two of the more remarkable unionists and teachers that I know and spending a few hours with them helped to center me and give me an idea of what direction to head in from there.  That has become more clear to me in the time since our meeting as I have had time to contemplate some ideas and as I watched the AFT Convention in Minnesota unfold from afar (for a few good reports on that convention check out Norm Scott’s blog over at Ed Notes, along with the other blogs he links to).  What I am speaking of is the idea of elevating teacher voice.  Giving a louder voice to the actual teachers working in the classrooms.

This entire concept is a very important one for me.  One of the largest problems that we have faced in recent years has been the lack of teacher voice when it comes to the decisions that shape our public school system.  That shouldn’t be any secret to readers of this blog.  While we have made some strides in the pushback against ed deform in recent years, I am not so sure we have made much, if any, progress in terms of raising teacher voice.  We have some tremendous allies who have done incredible work alongside us in bettering public education.  Still, when it comes to the issues that impact our students and teachers most, the voices that we typically hear from are not those of the teachers who are in the classroom every day.  We hear from elected officials, parents, union leaders, authors, caucuses, coalitions, and groups, all of whom have contributed immensely to some real progress over the past few years.  But rarely, if ever, do we hear from actual classroom teachers.  On the rare occasion it is a teacher who we hear from, it is often because they are first identified as the head of one of the aforementioned groups.  There are some very real reasons for this, of course.  But ultimately, as long as teachers allow themselves to be regularly pushed to the sidelines when the issues that impact them so greatly are discussed, we, along with the students we serve, will continue to be at the mercy of others.

As I begin to wrap my head around the idea of the 2016-2017 school year, I do so with the question in mind of how do we raise teacher voice across New York State and beyond?  How do we empower our members at the very grassroots level?  How do we better engage our membership at the local, state, and national levels in a way that allows the members to drive the union agendas?  How do we create union cultures that encourage membership participation and what exactly does that participation look like?  How do we create times and places to facilitate discussions among the rank and file about what our unions are vs. what they actually should be?  How do we build more democratic unions and how do we overcome the obstacles that stand in the path of union democracy?  How do we turn our unions from passive unions or unions who simply mobilize around top down mandates into unions who have rank and file organizing at the very heart of their operation?

I’ll be using this blog throughout the remainder of the summer to explore some of these ideas and more.  Additionally there will be a few new ideas to present to you before the start of the school year that I believe will help to raise teacher voice.  I strongly encourage you, whether you are a member of the PJSTA or any other local for that matter, to use the comment section below to share your feelings on the questions posed above.  I honestly have no idea what the best answers to those questions are (though I have plenty of ideas, lol), so I welcome the thoughts of others.  You can also reach me via email at pjsta1vp@gmail.com or @Sashammy on Twitter.

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