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Here's Why All Caucuses Must Be Supported By the UFT...
The health and strength of the whole union depend on it keeping its caucuses healthy and strong.
Chancellors and mayors may come and go. But the UFT will always be around.
Or will it?
If you carefully read through the history of New York City’s education over the past sixty years, you might conclude what many of us concluded a long time ago: That the city’s teachers’ union, the UFT, has been in the strongest position to bring real change to New York education for decades.
This doesn’t mean that the past few years haven’t been tough on the union. They have! The Supreme Court's decision in Janus v. AFSCME in 2018 weakened the strength of unions like the UFT all across the nation. During this same period, America's education stakeholders all witnessed the Red State Revolt, a series of teacher strikes across the country where thousands of educators took to the picket lines and fought for better conditions for their students. Many of these stakeholders observed teachers go out on strike and (correctly) concluded that America's politics must be moving, ever so gradually, to the left. This led many teachers to expect that their unions would respond by becoming more progressive and much more active than they had been in years past. Some of the more liberal educators celebrate this shift while some of the more conservative educators don’t 🤷🏻♂️. But the point is that many of these teachers (from both sides) are also vocal members of the same union and that presents its own set of unique challenges.
Sandwiched between the realities of living in the wake of the Janus decision and increased pressure from members during a time when America's politics are changing is the leadership of the UFT -and they are keenly aware that they can no longer take the continued strength of the union for granted.
Now despite any claims to the contrary, the people who form the UFT leadership are a collection of sincerely good-natured, sharp-minded, middle-of-the-road Democrat labor relations professionals, who are also teachers. These are folks who hang their hat with the system. They fervently supported Joe Biden during the previous election and just as fervently supported Hillary Clinton before him. They tend to avoid taking a hard stance on any political issue and do their level best to steer away from advocating for any issues that might bring political controversy to the union. They financially support politicians who they feel will see issues the same way they do and, with regard to political donations, are fully aware that they hold the strings to the largest education purse in Albany. But, like leaders of any large organization, they won't pay attention to member-driven issues unless they are heavily influenced or compelled to do so.
Throughout the UFT’s recent history the most effective ways to ensure that leadership pays attention to member issues have been through the work of its several distinct causes. When whole caucuses advocate for a particular issue, we have seen the union pay quicker attention to that issue and address it.
This is why making sure these caucuses remain healthy and become vibrant is a responsibility the UFT leadership can and should accept.
Caucuses are nothing more than small groups (or factions) that form within any organization. Every caucus is organized and maintained around a common set of purposes and goals that are, in some way, unique within the larger organization. The United States House of Representatives, for instance, has no less than eleven caucuses, with every faction being organized around a set of common ideas and goals. It’s easy for us to see the caucuses’ work reflected throughout the house. Members from every caucus serve on several committees, each of which are important to the work of the caucus and make sure their committee work reflects their caucus’ ideals
The Democratic Socialists of American, on the other hand, has six major caucuses, One, actually called the Libertarian-Socialist Caucus, shares goals that are in stark contrast to the beliefs of almost any socialist group in the nation. Yet, because they are a caucus, their beliefs have found a ready home within the DSA, which encourages and supports their continued existence.
The UFT has four of these groups. The newest, called Solidarity, was formed just five years ago. Two other dissenting caucuses are MORE and New Action. But the oldest caucus, the Unity Caucus, is the only one that holds any power inside the union. The other caucuses hold none. Because of this, when an outsider refers to "the UFT" or "the teachers' union" what they are really referring to is the Unity Caucus.
That's right. Our entire union is run exclusively by one faction, the Unity Caucus (a collection of good natured, sharp minded, middle-of-the-road Democrat labor relations professionals. The folks who hang their hat with the system and who tend to avoid taking a hard stance on any political issue. The ones who do their level best to steer away from controversy are the same ones who (exclusively) decide that the politicians they like are the politicians you and I financially support with dues or COPE funds).
The ones who hold the strings to the largest purse in Albany? That's the Unity Caucus. That’s all the Unity Caucus and that is only the Unity Caucus. Each of the other caucuses of the union share none of this power.
This is not a very healthy arrangement. By in-large, both the caucus and the organization really need each other! The organization needs active, motivated participants and a source of fresh, alternative ideas. The caucus needs allies as well as needing the larger organization to amplify its voice if (it ever hopes to achieve its goals, then it is going to need the support of the larger organization, right?). In every case, both the caucus and the organization keep each other healthy. Caucus health fuels the health of the whole organization. It’s just that simple. This is why caucus ideas and beliefs are thoughtfully distributed across the many committees of the House of Representatives. And it is also why the DSA has encouraged the formation and maintenance of the Libertarian-Socialist Caucus, as well as their other groups.
This is why the Unity Caucus needs to accept the responsibility of ensuring the health of this union's other caucuses.
Middle-of-the-road Democrats are nice. Many folks like them (I do! They’re great to have a meeting or lunch or something!). But, presently, the political right of New York is angry and the political left is young and vocal and very active. These teachers are not happy that their union has provided no space for their general world outlook. The Unity Caucus must take ownership of this dilemma as soon as it can or these divisions will grow and begin to sap the union’s strength (and at the worst possible time). Unity should take real steps to ensure the three other caucuses have an opportunity to be healthy and to expand as a unique group within the larger organization. Unity, and only Unity, has the power to make this happen. So Unity, and only Unity, has to make it happen as soon as possible.
There are many ways they can accomplish this. But they should start by providing space at 52 Broadway (and at the five UFT borough offices) for members of other caucuses to meet, organize and plan. We can’t even begin to talk about a healthy UFT when a caucus (of the strongest union in New York, mind you) must meet in a Greek restaurant in Queens, or in a youth activist center in Manhattan, or at a diner in midtown. This is an embarrassing way to treat to those amazing members who made the brave decision to be politically active and that is an embarrassment to the entire union. Once we are all back to normal, the Unity Caucus will be able to fix this problem in one day with a simple Google Calendar and a call to the other caucuses asking “where and when might you need some space”. And they should.
Maintaining the health of a caucus also means feeding them. This is why Unity should have the UFT provide a generous yearly stipend to each caucus which can be used to perform caucus-related work. All caucus members, Unity's included, should feel free to engage in their caucus work as a labor of love, and all should understand that they will probably be doing it for free. But it is in the best interest of the union that some part of that labor is financially supported in some reasonable way. A stipend would help with items like supplies or a small food budget when the caucuses meet and that would go a long way toward guaranteeing the health of each of its caucus.
Finally, Unity should arrange for UFT leadership to meet with the leadership of the other caucuses once every month. This will help the caucuses better understand the issues that the union is facing and it will help the union better understand the nature of the work the causes are engaged in.
These are simple steps and they should be taken as soon as possible. Why? well because the people inside the Unity Caucus care (deeply) about the union’s membership. But our union exists in a post-Janus world -and in this world unions need to find ways to be more responsive to members. At the same time, the numbers of voices and points of view within our union (the ones who feel they have no path to express their views inside their own union) is only growing. They are growing more numerous. They are growing louder and they are growing more frustrated.
This process can be reversed, but only by addressing the imbalances that exist with regard to how the union treats its caucuses. The easiest way to do this is to provide support to the other causes. But that decision rests only in the hands of the folks from Unity.