By James Eterno; UFT Chapter Leader, Jamaica High School
Usually around UFT election time, members approach me and say, "Why can't an opposition group win control of the UFT?" They tell us all the time how we are great fighters who could do a better job than the UFT leadership. I usually smile, say thanks and ask for their help to spread the word, knowing full well that being in opposition to Unity Caucus (Randi Weingarten's faction of the UFT) is not a great career move.
Around the time of the giveback laden 2005 Contract, many people approached me to find out how such a horrible Contract was approved by teachers. They questioned their fellow teachers reasoning skills. I answered that their colleagues are very busy people who often trust their Chapter Leaders to do what is right. Most UFT members do not have the time nor desire to learn about the UFT's internal structure.
If anyone is interested, the best place to look for information on how and why the UFT operates more like an insurance company than a labor union, then please read one time AFT President David Seldon's book, The Teacher Rebellion. However, since most teachers don't have the time to be able to find let alone read this excellent book right now, here is a very brief rundown on the UFT's power structure.
This is a good time to review UFT 101 as teachers are once again asking me how it is possible that the Delegate Assembly (the highest policy making body of the UFT) does not represent what people are feeling in the schools. We proposed a very sensible amendment at the October DA to unequivocally oppose the power grab by the City Council to extend term limits for themselves and the Mayor. 89% of city voters in a recent Quinipiac poll said they were against the Council bill. We are quite sure that a similar number of teachers would be opposed to the City Council voting to end term limits without going back to the voters who twice voted for the limits. However, we only received support from 30-40% of delegates at the DA. Some were puzzled by this low number. Is the DA that out of touch with the rest of NYC? The answer is no. In reality, 30-40% in favor of something the UFT leadership opposes is actually not bad when you consider what we are up against.
HOW DOES THE UNITY MACHINE OPERATE?
The UFT, basically since it was founded in 1960, has been controlled by a closed, invitation only political party called Unity Caucus. Unity, under the leadership of Al Shanker, organized a strict, top-down corporate structure that pretty much ensures that they will retain power but it inhibits true unionism that should come from the rank and file. This does not mean that there aren't good trade unionists who care about education and the members in Unity. I've worked with Unity officials who have helped my Chapter on many occasions. It's just that within the top-down hierarchical structure, the Unity machine stifles any real movement from the rank and file that would be necessary if we are to exert our union power.
We must first understand the most important obligation for a Unity member. Mr. Education Notes, Norm Scott, calls it the "Prime Directive." In order to join Unity Caucus, a potential recruit must agree as part of their membership obligations to "Support the decisions of the caucus and Union leadership elected from the caucus in public or Union forums." Some call this the "Unity Loyalty Oath."
When the Unity leadership makes a decision on any issue, Unity members must support that decision and publicly advocate for it or they could be sanctioned by the Caucus leadership. Some have been banished from Unity for opposing an important caucus position. If a Chapter Leader or a Delegate belongs to Unity and represents the members in their schools who don't like a leadership proposal like the horrible 2005 Contract, then that Chapter Leader or Delegate could end up in trouble. Unity leaders are all over the Delegate Assembly and can easily see whose hands go up when an issue is voted on. The next question then is how does Unity enforce this strict party discipline?
The answer is quite simple. Since Unity wins every UFT Election (Explaining slate voting and the at large election system is another post.), they control the decision making bodies of the Union (the Ad Com, Executive Board and DA). Just as importantly, they are in charge of the perks of the Union. At the bottom of the Unity food chain are Unity members who receive free all expense paid trips to the American Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers' Conventions. These free convention jaunts only go to Unity loyalists. Next up the line are those whose loyalty is rewarded with part time paid Union jobs. These are after-school positions and also jobs for retirees. These jobs are only opened to Unity Caucus members and lately to New Action supporters. New Action was a traditional opposition group that I once belonged to that has not run a candidate against President Randi Weingarten in the last two UFT elections but the Caucus is still on the ballot. Now, their people are on the Union payroll too. They were not in the past.
Finally, there is the grand prize of being able to escape the classroom and get a full-time Union job with a salary that is tens of thousands of dollars greater than a senior teacher and also includes an expense account and a second pension to go along with the City pension. These jobs virtually all belong to Unity members. One moves up the Union food chain by being loyal to the leadership who then pick people for the prized jobs. Competence is not necessarily a requirement.
Functionals (the Retired Teachers Chapter and other non-teachers in the UFT) now make up a clear majority of the Union. Each Functional Chapter has their own elections and their own perks to dole out for delegates to ensure their loyalty to Unity. Add to this the school Chapters that are controlled by Unity Chapter Leaders and Delegates and Unity easily controls the Delegate Assembly and thus the Union.
Therefore, when a resolution comes up to oppose the City Council power grab that 89% of the people in the City would agree with, it is not surprising at all that the DA does not represent the will of the teachers and other UFT members working in the schools. The only way to change this system is to organize an opposition in every school and demand that each Chapter Leader and Delegate follow the will of their Chapter. Or maybe, just maybe, there will be a revolt within Unity as there was a split in the majority caucus in Chicago. I've been involved in UFT activities for over a decade. I truly believe that one day this Union's top-down corporate structure that serves itself better than the membership will crumble.