Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Economist Paul Krugman had a very interesting column Monday examining the end of the Roman Republic and comparing it with our situation in the modern United States.

Here is one of his important points regarding the decline of the Roman Republic:

Republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.

Professor Krugman is of course worried about the Republican Party in the USA in 2016 defying the political norms to turn our country into a one party state. He makes a strong case; we should be concerned.

However, when I read this I thought about not only the United States but also the United Federation of Teachers. We are a union that started out democratically and actually had competitive elections and strong debates but one party took over and turned it into basically a tyrannical system while keeping alive the appearance of a democracy.

In the 1960's, there were actually real elections in the UFT but Albert Shanker consolidated his power by requiring the Unity Loyalty Oath (one must support the decisions of the Unity Caucus leadership in public and union forums as a condition of receiving any union perk). Elections still take place but there is enough patronage to go around to ensure Unity controls the information that gets to the vast majority of the membership, particularly the retirees who make up a huge segment of the voters. The game is rigged. Only in the high schools is there actually real democracy as opposition groups in this division remain strong.

The parallels of the tyrannical Republican Party today and Unity/UFT from Krugman are best exemplified in this paragraph.

For such people, toeing the party line and defending the party’s rule are all that matters. And if they sometimes seem consumed with rage at anyone who challenges their actions, well, that’s how hacks always respond when called on their hackery.

Ever call UFT Unity reps on their hackery? Watch them deny, deny and then deny.

The UFT has not had real democratic governance in decades. We certainly had robust discourse in the past as this account from Jack Shierenbeck's Class Struggles: The UFT Story Part Six describes the internal debate before the 1962 strike:

(Note Charlie is Charles Cogen, the first UFT President who originally opposed a strike.)

‘Strike, strike’

“No, no, Charlie,” the delegates chanted. “We want a contract, not more promises.” Newspaper accounts told of “frenzied foot-stomping and shouts of ‘strike, strike.’” To great cheers, militant leader and UFT deputy president Sam Hochberg called the city’s offer of $28 million “nothing” and predicted a “tremendous strike.”

Near 3 a.m., Shanker made an impassioned plea for restraint, warning of what was in store if the city got an injunction under the harsh Condon-Wadlin Law. “This is what you will have to face,” he said. “Your leaders will be arrested and will lose their jobs. As the first set of leaders is taken off to jail, another set of leaders will be arrested and jailed. Are there enough teachers who then will be willing to support a strike?”

Hochberg countered that if the union caved in to the threatened injunction, the board would have found its weapon. “I’d say you have given up the right to strike for all time,” Hochberg said.

Lou Frazer, a junior high school teacher, got up. “We are here for every teacher and not for money reasons, but for the preservation and dignity of the profession. Let us go. Our issues are clear, simple and valid. You owe it to yourselves.” The delegates were on their feet howling with approval.

By a resounding 9-1 margin, the delegates rejected the executive board’s plea for more time. It was decided, instead, that the issue would be put before the general membership later that day.

Round 2 at St. Nick’s that afternoon proved to be more of the same. There on the stage was the lone figure of Charlie Cogen standing before an angry crowd of 5,000 members stamping their feet, booing, jeering, yelling “sell-out” and “strike now” and waving signs reading “Money yes, promises no” and “Action now.” It took Cogen some 40 minutes just to bring the raucous group to order.

Boos and cat-calls greeted Cogen’s plea to avoid being labeled “strike-happy” and to vote for a temporary truce. Newspaper reports told of “prolonged applause and loud cheers” for Hochberg and (Roger) Parente, “leaders of the militant wing.”

A Daily News reporter described the scene this way: “Some 5,000 public school teachers, split between red-hots anxious to strike today and more cautious souls … The union … is torn by internal dissension and power fights among its officers.” On the question of whether to postpone or strike now, the vote was 2,544–2,231 to rebuke the leadership and strike immediately. The hardliners had won by just 313 votes. The strike was on.

You’re all fired

Narrowly defeated or not, after the vote Cogen said, “We’re completely united.” Asked about the threat of being jailed if they defied an injunction, Cogen is reported to have smiled and said: “Life has risks. Everything has risks.” The next morning, April 11, brought out the pickets. One newspaper account told of one protester: “Charles Hoffman, 24, a 9th-grade teacher picketing outside JHS 65 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, said: ‘We’re getting a raw deal from the city and it’s up to the teachers to do something. It’s about time we stood firm. We’ve been fair. Now we have to be firm.’”

Another picketer mentioned in the press was Don Morey, who carried a hand-lettered sign that read: “More Money for Morey.” Identifying himself as part of “a younger generation of teachers with more gumption and guts — people who are not afraid to strike,” The Seward Park HS social studies teacher told the World-Telegram & The Sun that after seven years he was earning only $6,810 a year.

“People seem to think that teachers live in a special world — they expect teachers to act like angels,” he said. “But when the Board of Education acts like a factory owner, we have to respond accordingly.”

Young and old, more than 20,000 teachers refused to report for work — stunning the board and the city.

The strike was a huge success. It is hard to even conceive of our top-down we know best union leaders today even thinking in a militant way but a robust democratic debate with all sides being heard is what is needed in 2016 to save what was a once great union. I don't know if we are capable of engaging in such a discussion when the Union's leadership can't even agree to Arthur Goldstein's resolution on lowering class sizes.


  1. Why did you censor my last comment? I said nothing racist or politically incorrect. I must have hit a nerve.

  2. I haven't censored anything in a while. Are you sure you did it right?

  3. Yes, it printed and later was gone. I'll expand my original comment with a minor example. I'm a 22 year veteran teacher/babysitter ATR who got a call earlier this week from a downtrodden ATR colleague who's in a very badly run, difficult school and is being told to cover not only classes but work as a secretary. He's also being formally observed every two weeks. The UFT will do nothing for him. He's become friendly with many of the staff so he was upset when they had their Xmas party and asked him to leave the room. The same thing just happened to me with the 25 year olds that make up the staff of school I'm in. I just ate lunch, but it was incredibly insulting. I have no affinity for these staffs or the UFT. There will be, in a year or two, a call to strike as the inexperienced,inexpensive staff start to get laid off according to LIFO. I know very few veteran teachers that will strike. I know I won't. The UFT is dead.

  4. Paul Krugman has been in a sorry state since his pal lost the election and I wouldn't listen to a word he writes for the next 4 years.

  5. Was he hoping to be treasury secretary or something similar?


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