July 16, 2012
Factions from various corners of the city’s educational activism scene are coming together to challenge the Unity Caucus’s political might.
Calling themselves MORE, the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators, members of the fledgling group held their first public meeting in a Lower East Side Bar on Thursday evening. There, they discussed the history of the United Federation of Teachers and floated plans for a minority caucus they hope could wrest some power from the union’s political majority.
The meeting was led by Norm Scott, Michael Fiorillo, Gloria Brandman and Sam Coleman, retired and current teachers who have been active in union politics for years. Attendees also included a mix of union chapter leaders, Occupy the Department of Education organizers, some of the teachers union’s younger members, and retirees.
As they introduced themselves, many described their disillusionment with a teachers union almost entirely controlled by Unity. Unity has dominated union politics for decades and supported Randi Weingarten and Michael Mulgrew in their bids for the union’s presidency. Both won their elections by huge majorities.
Close to forty teachers turned out to the bar, which also hosts meetings of the New Teacher Underground, an activism off-shoot of the New York Coalition of Radical Educators. Mike Schirtzer, a teacher at Leon M. Goldstein High School who introduced himself as the caretaker of MORE’s Twitter account, said one way MORE will set itself apart from other union caucuses will be by using social media to organize teachers.
“We are not going to wait for Unity to organize actions,” he said.
Some MORE members said they hoped to inspire younger teachers who do not participate in union elections. Voter turnout to union elections is typically low (30 percent), and a large portion of those votes come from retired members. Union officials have speculated that this is because younger members are less interested in the union’s governing process.
Unity’s members, “Are aging out,” Kelly Wolcott, an Occupy organizer, said. “They’re dying for new members. But I said, I’m not giving you my $25. It’s not the Occupy spirit, I’m sorry.”
Schirtzer told me his first brush with activism came in 2010, when he and other teachers organized protests around their concerns that citywide budget cuts would spell the end of the Brooklyn school’s after school clubs.
“I’m an organizer at my school now, but I’m the least radical person you’d ever meet,” he said. “This is all kind of new to me.”
“The thing that will be different about us is that we will go into schools and neighborhoods and educate our members,” Coleman said, on topics ranging from race to charter schools.
Opposition caucuses have struggled to gain a foothold in the United Federation of Teachers. the Independent Coalition of Educators, or ICE, one prominent caucus, unsuccessfully supported James Eterno in a run against Mulgrew in 2010. Meanwhile, New Action, another caucus, managed to capture several seats on the union’s board by agreeing to cross-endorse candidates with Unity.
Peter Goodman, a longtime teachers union member who is not involved with MORE, said these caucuses have had a tough time attracting members because many union members consider Mulgrew to be the only person up for the task of fighting Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s most controversial school policies.
“The Unity Caucus certainly dominates everything now, but I think that’s simply a function of the fact that Bloomberg is the enemy of everyone. If you don’t support Mulgrew, you’re really supporting Bloomberg,” he said. “And with the union’s recent victories, the members see Mulgrew as fighting the mayor and winning.”
Goodman predicted that greater factions could divide the union over education policies once Bloomberg’s final term ends next year. The teachers union has won several key face-offs against the Bloomberg administration in recent years over plans to shutter schools.
Scott said MORE has yet to decide its stance on educational policies, but he noted that there were many points of contention between its members and current union leaders, particularly around school closures and charter school co-locations.
“We think the UFT has aided in the closing of schools, and the UFT supports charters,” he said. “We are absolutely opposed to closing schools; we are absolutely opposed to the teacher data reports; we absolutely oppose mayoral control, whereas the UFT hedges its bets.”
Many of the evening’s attendees brought other ideas for how MORE could get involved in city activism, a la such mainstays as the Grassroots Education Movement, an advocacy group to which some of them also belong. One man passed around petitions opposing the creation of the teacher evaluation system. A handful of teachers described joining Con Edison strikers last week to show solidarity, and others said they were planning a trip to a vigil for a young man in the Bronx who was shot and killed by a police officer in February.
Several attendees talked about the example the Chicago Teachers Union Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE) has set in Chicago by engaging community members, as GEM does, to keep public opinion somewhat favorable even as members voted to authorize a strike.
“We should be supporting them,” Coleman said.
One of the biggest challenges, Coleman added, will be attracting members and election candidates to create momentum and a necessary show of support before next year’s union elections. MORE leaders are planning their first fundraising event on September 29.
“We need many, many people, hundreds,” Coleman said. “It doesn’t cost anything, maybe show up to a meeting at your school, get some signatures. Anyone who thinks the UFT should be different, please consider running on the MORE ticket in the spring.”
Leo Casey, the teachers union’s vice president for high schools, said MORE could be poised to generate more substantive policy debates within the union. But he is skeptical that it will have much success opposing Unity, which supported his election.
“In so far as MORE seems to be running on a slate or on a platform that says Muglrew and the leadership of the UFT haven’t fought strongly for the members, I just think that that’s not going to be taken seriously,” said Casey, who is leaving his post in September to head the Albert Shanker Institute. “Of the people they’re bringing together, some of them are good at making principled political criticisms, but with some of them it’s just a steady stream of personal attacks. I don’t think that would have much resonance.”
Earlier this year Casey accused GEM teacher activists of attacking the union after they disagreed on how best to protest a winter Panel for Educational Policy meeting.
Scott said MORE hopes to bring together teachers who supported ICE, and members of GEM and NYCORE, with those who have been uninvolved in union politics or city social justice issues.
“All the groups are coming together in one organization, plus a lot of people who have not been involved before,” he said. “Last night, I didn’t know a lot of people.”
Scott said the similarities between MORE and CORE will hopefully go beyond their names. “CORE wasn’t even a group four years ago, and two years later they won the election [in Chicago],” he said. “It is unlikely that we’d win the election in two years, but the inspiration is how they organized, got into the grassroots, found teachers who were never active before and got them to become active. My hope is to get people who really want to do something different, and need a place to go.”