Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Welcome Chapter Leaders

(The following leaflet, written by Norm Scott and edited by Vera Pavone, was distributed to chapter leaders at the reception the UFT held for them on July 13.)

Congratulations on your election as chapter leader. Being a Chapter Leader is often a thankless job but one that is crucial to our Union.

We are the Independent Community of Educators (ICE) a group of rank and file UFT members, including chapter leaders, delegates and members of the UFT Executive Board. Before joining ICE most of us were independents, not affiliated with other internal Union groups.

Our History

ICE was organized late in 2003 as an attempt to present an alternative platform to that of Unity Caucus, Randi Weingarten’s political party, which has dominated our Union as a 1-party system since the early 60’s. New Action, which had been leading the opposition for many years, made an alliance with the Unity Caucus leadership, culminating in a deal to not run a candidate against Randi Weingarten in the 2004 elections. NA leaders argued that at a time of crisis we should unite behind our union leaders. We did not agree, feeling that our union leaders had played a major role in bringing about this crisis as they eagerly endorsed mayoral control and were initially enthusiastic supporters of Joel Klein’s Children First initiatives, in essence giving the DOE and its corporate media and foundation supporters ample room to consolidate and broaden their attacks on the union and the contract. Their policies quickly resulted in the usurpation of the rights of teachers to make basic educational decisions.

It seemed clear to us that the UFT leadership’s prime interest was to keep themselves in power in order to maintain their perks (large salaries and out of classroom jobs) and they would only pay attention to the interests of union members when their own interests were threatened. There was a stronger need than ever to work towards the creation of a force for change in the UFT.

The 2004 elections gave us an opportunity to raise numerous issues by challenging the Unity Caucus leadership. Due to the fundamentally undemocratic structure of our union, it would take a lot more than a citywide election to threaten the monopoly power that Unity Caucus exerts over our union. However, in cooperation with Teachers for a Just Contract, which had been an alternative group in the UFT challenging Unity Caucus for 10 years, we won six high school Executive Board seats. Unity still had an 83-6 majority on the Executive Board in addition to holding all other city-wide offices.

The Contract of 2006

The contract negotiated by the UFT and the DOE last fall confirmed our initial analysis that the UFT leadership would use givebacks of time and contractual protections in exchange for what they would call “raises.” But we don’t have to tell you that. You live that contract and breathe it every day. During the ratification process, the leadership used the same “we’re in a crisis” claim as an excuse for what they admitted was a bad contract, saying it was the best they could do. It’s clear to us that the already bad 2002 contract had more protections than the new one.

It’s not hard to get money when you are willing to sell off chunks of the contract. What next? Selling even more of the few protections left to teachers? Is it worth the money to the people who have been U-rated? Or to the senior teachers who have been hounded out of the system? Or to the helpless people packing rubber rooms who aren’t informed of the charges against them while investigators go on fishing expeditions to extract information against them?

Even worse, many Chapter Leaders are under attack as part of the DOE strategy of destroying the union from below. We have seen the growing harassment of chapter leaders through the use of U ratings, with all too many being sent to the rubber room for minor or manufactured issues. Our union leaders have been standing by allowing it all to happen despite our calls for them to add protections for chapter leaders.

U ratings used to be the culmination of a process set up to deal with teachers who were demonstrably unable to perform their jobs. Our latest contract has made it easy for all-too-many incompetent supervisors to dole out U ratings to teachers who they don’t like or who have a critical attitude to the latest educational fad foisted on them. We have seen an exponential leap in U ratings. The job of Chapter Leader will be harder than ever.

If you are a new chapter leader, you will be courted by Unity through training, meetings, promises of career opportunities and other perks. We urge you to maintain your independence because membership in Unity comes with a price. Unity members must sign an extensive obligation statement. They must “support the decisions of the caucus and the Union leadership elected from the caucus in public or Union forums” even if these are in opposition to the wishes or best interests of their chapter members.

The Unity Caucus loyalty oath and patronage system have hurt our union because Unity members, who want to be part of the spoils machine that offers free trips to conventions and full and part-time Union jobs with six figure salaries and double pensions, must owe greater allegiance to the Caucus than to the members in the schools who elected them. The result is cynicism in schools when the program of the leadership is pushed down members’ throats.

The UFT belongs to rank and file educators, not the leadership. Change needs to come from the schools and independent chapter leaders will be key to this process. Only by building a progressive alternative to Unity Caucus can we hope to strengthen and unite members in a fight back against a concerted effort to destroy both our union and public education. We look forward to working with you.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

It’s the New Contract Stupid: “Insider” Hints at Reason For Increased “U” Ratings

While the numbers are not officially in, it is abundantly clear that the number of “U” ratings has substantially increased. Reports from schools around the City indicate that large numbers of senior and beginning teachers are being targeted for discipline. A person close to the Office of Appeals and Review (the office handling appeals of U-ratings) has confirmed this trend and stated that the number of U-ratings appears to be the highest in recent memory.

We all know how this trend started. It is no secret that as part of the changes in our contract the principals received an increase in the ability to select and remove their staff. We can no longer grieve letters to the file which, in the past, could tie up a U-rating for years and subject negative letters to arbitrators who might destroy the underpinnings of the unsatisfactory evaluation in their award.

Principals who, in the past, might have been reluctant to write letters to the file now order their Assistant Principals to write observations that can only be challenged at an appeal before a Chancellor’s representative, not an independent hearing officer.

No one could seriously argue that there are no unsatisfactory teachers in our system. The issue becomes, as we have said since the new contract was proposed, who decides. When a principal decides to target a teacher our new procedure makes it extremely difficult to prevent disciplinary action and eventual dismissal.

With this increase in U-ratings where does our Union stand?

I have received a large number of emails and telephone calls from recently U-rated teachers. By and large the Union’s advice to these teachers is, “Don’t worry; we’ll take care of it.”

Amazingly this advice is also given to probationers (many Teaching Fellows) who are dismissed after receiving U-ratings. Waiting can only deprive you of your day in court as the statute of limitations to challenge a dismissal in court is only 120 days after notice that you have been dismissed. You are still entitled to a U-rating appeal but winning the appeal will not get you your job back.

Is there an effective strategy to combat negative observation reports? Can you tape your own observed lesson? Can your performance be assessed by a qualified supervisor?

I hope our Union can answer these questions and provide the kind of guidance and advocacy we need. We should demand no less.