Why We Don't Support Unity, New Action or MORE: Build a Class Struggle Opposition to the Sellout UFT Bureaucracy
By Class Struggle Education Workers/UFT
Daniel De Leon called them "the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class." He was referring to the bureaucrats who sit atop the unions, selling out the workers' interests and bargaining away their rights in hopes of seeking favor with the bosses. If you want to see the labor
bureaucracy at work today, just come on down to 52 Broadway to observe a Delegate Assembly of the United Federation of Teachers. (Sorry, you can't be in the room, you'll have to watch on CCTV from the 19th floor -- so that no groans can be heard from the "peanut gallery" as the UFT tops pat themselves on the back while giving up another hard-won union gain.)
In the face of militant class battles, from the struggle for the eight-hour day by the anarchist Haymarket martyrs in 1886 to the 1912 Lawrence textile strike led by the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, the role of the labor bureaucracy of the American Federation of Labor was to undercut and sabotage the struggle. If the employers were
trying to shove a toxic deal down the workers' throats, the "labor fakers," as the Wobblies derisively called them, were there to spoon feed the poison.
So it is today, only squared, because the stranglehold of the bureaucracy is so tight that there are few labor battles to sell out. Usually, the bigwigs of the AFL-CIO give in and give up without a fight. Occasionally they call a strike that they have no strategy to win, in
order to let the ranks blow off steam. When things get really bad, at most they do some grandstanding, like in Wisconsin in 2011, then call it off at the crucial moment in favor of voting for the Democrats, who like the Republicans are assaulting workers' rights -- they
just want to preserve the unions themselves so they can get campaign donations and
phone-banking at election time.
The name of their game is class collaboration, cutting deals with the bosses, supporting their political parties, joining their "blue ribbon" commissions, etc. But class collaboration didn't build the unions, class struggle did. And it will take hard class struggle to save the
unions from the bipartisan capitalist assault on labor and the working class that has been underway for over three decades. Facing the web of anti-labor laws that hamstring labor,
the bureaucracy can only be fought by a class-struggle opposition that takes on the partner parties of capital and their state.
So here we are at election time in the United Federation of Teachers.The "Unity Caucus" is running Michael Mulgrew for reelection as UFT president on a platform of more of the same. So is the me-too "New Action" caucus, which once upon a time, long, long ago, was a
semi-opposition that has since been bought off with a few seats on the executive board. Meanwhile, the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators (MORE) is running Julie Cavanagh on a program calling for "more" union democracy, "less top-down bureaucracy" and a laundry list of reforms. Let's look more closely to see where they stand. First up is Unity,
which is not really a political caucus inside the union standing on a series of principles
-- it's a bureaucratic machine, the instrument of the leadership to keep the UFT ranks in line. And it is a formidable machine. It's truly a sight to behold, 900 hands going up in
unison at the D.A. to vote against whatever the opposition proposes when most
Unity delegates don't even have a clue what the issue is. No matter, they've got their perks and they know their role: they're cogs in the machine. Advice for would-be bureaucrats: if you're looking to be a cog, Unity is the ticket for you.
Over the last three decades, the UFT and its parent, the American Federation of Teachers, have gone along with just about every attack on teaching and public education. AFT founder Albert Shanker signed on to the Reaganite "A Nation at Risk" report in 1983, allying with business leaders out to destroy teacher union power and milk public schools for profit. Faced with the onslaught of billionaire-financed charter schools, the AFT/UFT leaders announced charters were Shanker's idea. Instead of fighting to defeat them, their response was DYO: they negotiated contracts eliminating key job protections with Green Dot
schools and set up UFT charters.
The 2005 UFT contract was a huge sellout of teachers' rights: in exchange for a raise, it agreed to scrap the seniority transfer system and create an "Open Market" for hiring. This notoriously discriminates against older and higher paid workers, teachers from city schools or anyone not meeting the Ivy League "Teach for America" profile. Soon black and Latino teachers were disappearing from the system.
The UFT tops also backed the now-discredited, Gates-financed "small schools movement" which broke up the comprehensive high schools, and the strong union structures within them. Instead they set up multiple resource-deprived "learning communities" competing for space, installed a whole new layer of highly paid principals, and deprived inner city
kids of art, gym, sports and anything but low-level 3Rs rote learning.
The UFT leadership's concept of "struggle" is going toe-to-toe with the DOE with a million-dollar ad buy on TV. Their idea of fighting the onslaught of privatization, charter schools and gutting of public education is hobbing and nobbing with Democratic legislators (and the
occasional Republican) in the state capitol. But now they have a huge problem facing an anti-union agenda being pushed by a unified capitalist class, from the Business Roundtable and billionaires like Bill Gates and NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg to Democratic president Barack Obama, his schools "czar" Arne Duncan and Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo.
Mulgrew, like his mentor Randi Weingarten (now at the AFT helm in D.C.), has a methodology: split the difference and go along with the rulers' demands, trying to minimize the damage. They may be able to win the odd court suit and play off the differences between the parties in Albany. They may be the object of smear jobs by Fox Television and in the union-hating tabloids. But here we are facing a united ruling-class offensive with the Democrats leading the charge, and in that situation the Unity gang is incapable of putting up even a semblance of opposition. Foot-dragging and influence peddling only go so far.
So today Unity's role is to ram the new teacher evaluations, the Danielson framework, the Common Core "standards" -- all of which the AFT/UFT leadership helped develop -- down the throats of teachers. These teacher evals linked to student test scores scapegoat educators for the increasing poverty and ingrained racism in this racist capitalist society, as well as for failures of public education which are directly linked to the capitalists' attempts to destroy it, and to milk what's left for profits. Bush's No Child Left Behind has become "No Vendor Left Behind" and Obama's Race to the Top has become a race to the bottom,
with teachers and kids in last place.
Mulgrew & Co. claim they have built in all sorts of safeguards into the teacher evals, and the new system will be more "objective" than in the past when everything was up to the whim of the school principal. Nonsense. The system is being set up to go after "bad teachers," as if
that were the problem facing education today. The new "standards" using the oh-so-scientific Danielson "rubric" are rigged to label 7% of all teachers, every year, as "needs improvement" (i.e., failing), which will mean firing thousands of experienced and dedicated teachers nationwide, destroying their careers and their lives. Look at the hundreds axed by
Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C.
As for the kids, the drop out rates will soar, and those who can stick it out will be fed a diet of rote learning and test prep where all knowledge is reduced to a multiple choice answer, fill in the bubble, and there will be no room to think and write creatively . . . or critically. Which is the point, as the aim of the so called "education reform" movement is to bust the unions and train an obedient workforce to keep U.S. capitalism "competitive."
Politically, the UFT leadership goes back to Al Shanker, a virulent anti-Communist and member of Max Shachtman's Social Democrats U.S.A., which supplied a number of top officials for the Reagan administration. Shanker supported the bombing of Vietnam in the 1960s, the UFT was up to its neck in the AIFLD which aided the 1973 Pinochet coup that smashed unions in Chile, and it funneled CIA dollars to bankroll Polish Solidarnosc, spearheading counterrevolution in East Europe in the '80s. Today the AFT goes after historian Howard Zinn for opposing the wanton atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (see American Teacher, Winter 2013).
And, of course, the UFT/AFT supported Democrat Barack Obama for president even as Obama publicly stressed that he had no differences on education with Republican candidates John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. They are all teacher-bashers and would-be teacher union-busters, and they must be fought politically.
On New Action: not much to be said. The remnants of a caucus once strong in the high schools, NA was supported by the Communist Party, but after years on the outside it did a turnaround, chucked out the CP supporters, and hooked up with Unity. It supports Mulgrew for president in return for a seat at the UFT Executive Board table. (BTW, teachers may get
crumbs from the bosses' tables, but the e-board serves up a sumptuous spread.) NA's election brochure says: "Vote New Action! Independent, Progressive, Influential." That's a laugh and a half. NA jumps when Unity tells it to, it hasn't done anything progressive in years, and its "influence" is nil. Anyone who's been at an e-board meeting knows
Mulgrew treats New Action like a doormat.
That brings us to the Movement of Rank and File Educators. MORE is modeled on the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) which has led the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) since 2010. MORE has been put together from a series of opposition and activist groups in and around the UFT, including ICE (Independent Community of Educators), GEM (Grassroots Education Movement), NYCORE (New York Collective of Radical Educators)
and some remnants of TJC (Teachers for a Just Contract). MORE's idea is to build an all-purpose opposition caucus that would unite everyone, and therefore it stands for nothing in particular.
The entire recent activity of MORE is to get elected. With supporters of just about every would-be socialist and even ostensible communist reformist group in NYC, it ties itself into knots out of fear of red-baiting. Actually, we were struck by how MORE put a red-white-and-blue "Your Vote Counts" button on their web page. For any real red, this flag-waving symbolism calls up the images of torture prisons from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, of CIA "rendition" of prisoners, of Obama's killer drones, of U.S. imperialism seeking to enforce world domination. Politically MORE is straight liberal, as well as including the stray Republican. Radical it ain't.
MORE is essentially an election vehicle. In the biggest recent labor struggle in New York City involving education workers, the month-long school bus drivers, MORE was essentially MIA (see the CSEW leaflet, "Who Knifed NYC School Bus Drivers in the Back"). (So, too, was the UFT leadership, to no one's surprise.) As noted, it has a grab-bag platform
with planks about "more" of good things (art, music, solidarity, rank and file leadership), and "less" of bad things (overpaid union leaders, backroom deals, charters, high-stakes testing). It talks of "social justice unionism," but it's mainly vague calls for "No inequity,
discrimination and segregation."
MORE doesn't take hard positions. It talks of "no inequity," but how about equality and an end to elite "gifted and talented" programs and schools, and instead improving the quality of schools for all? It objects to criminalizing students but doesn't call for cops out of the
schools (no accident, since some in MORE support cops in the schools). It says it wants "an explicit UFT policy against school closings, the proliferation of charter schools, and forced co-locations...." That's nice, but how does it propose to stop this? No answer. It calls for
"restoring highly qualified veteran ATR teachers to permanent positions before hiring inexperienced lower-salaried teachers," rather than demanding full-time positions for all ATRs. And so on.
On charters, MORE and "Occupy the DOE" when it was around had a number of gimmicks at the mayor's puppet Panel on Educational Policy, with hand-puppets and songs, and mike check and skits, Superman capes at the Waiting for Superman movie where they called themselves the "real reformers." But this kind of theater will not stop the union-busting
assault on public education we are facing today. For that it is necessary to mobilize real power in class struggle, to confront capitalism, the capitalist parties and the capitalist state. MORE does not and will not do that.
There is not a mention in MORE platform of capitalism (only the current euphemism, "corporate"), nothing about the Democratic Party, nothing about the no-strike Taylor Law, much less about defying it. Of course not, because attacking the Democrats would scare off potential voters and striking would be "illegal." (In fact, there is no mention of the
dreaded "s-word" in the MORE platform, nor did MORE supporters raise this when contract demands were discussed at the Delegate Assembly.) At MORE rallies there are chants against Republican Bloomberg, but nothing against the Democrat Obama who is spearheading the war on public education.
MORE, CORE and groups like them may get some votes, may even win here and there, but they cannot lead the class struggle that's needed. Moreover, once in office, such reform caucuses are no qualitative improvement over the business union bureaucrats who preceded them. Sometimes, as with the deeply corrupt regime of Marilyn Stewart in the Chicago Teachers Union, the reformers led by Karen Lewis can clean things up. But CORE in power has gone along with the anti-union policies of the Democrats just as Stewart did (and Weingarten does in the AFT and Mulgrew in the UFT).
Yes, the CTU led by CORE called a strike, which was heroic. But then when they were facing the threat of a court injunction, they called off the strike and rammed a contract down the throats of the CTU delegates who had earlier rejected it. Then they endorsed Obama. CORE in power in Chicago is as much part of the labor bureaucracy as Unity is in New
York. And neither have a program that can win lasting gains, or even defend existing ones, much less defeat the labor haters in power.
Class Struggle Education Workers stands for a very different program. The CSEW not only opposes corporate education "reform," we say forthrightly that this entire program is not about reforming or improving education it's about union-busting (another word not to be
found in the MORE platform). The CSEW denounces the racist school closings and the "educational colonialism" and apartheid of the charter schools. We call for union action and programs to recruit black, Latino and Asian teachers to stop the DOE's deliberate "whitening" of the teaching force. But MORE doesn't want to touch the question of race, for
fear that it is "divisive."
The CSEW has called to occupy closing schools, not symbolically like the liberal/populist Occupy Wall Street movement but literally, with the support of the entire city labor movement and oppressed populations, to stop the forces who would declare our schools, teachers and students to be failures in order to carry out their wrecking operation. Instead of
calls to modify mayoral control (Unity's position, after having been instrumental in bringing it about) or vague calls to replace it with more local control (MORE), the CSEW calls for teacher-student-parent-worker control of the schools to rip them out of the hands of the Department of Education and its capitalist masters.
Class Struggle Education Workers not only calls to for an end to "Stop and Frisk," we marched in Brooklyn in the face of the police occupation after the murder of Kimani Gray calling for "Cops Out of East Flatbush, Cops Out of the Schools!" During the recent school bus strike, the CSEW was repeatedly present on the picket lines from day one while a CSEW supporter went to the UFT e-board and put forward a motion at the Delegate Assembly (defeated by Unity) to invite a speaker from striking ATU Local 1181 and to organize a solidarity mobilization of all NYC workers unions.
In the past when we put forward motions to occupy closing schools or to prepare for strike action, the Unity gang simply ruled this out of order. The CSEW calls to oust the bureaucrats and break with the Democrats, to build a workers party that fights for a workers government. Yet when a CSEW supporter rose in the UFT D.A. to oppose endorsement of any Democratic or Republican or capitalist candidate, not only did Mulgrew denounce this, there was no support from MORE. The bottom line is that such reform caucuses which don't challenge capitalism cannot prepare the membership for the struggles we face.
We need to build a class-struggle opposition in the UFT and all unions.
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