James Eterno: Mentor, Friend, Inspiration
By Mike Schirtzer, UFT executive board member
It is the day of a UFT Delegate Assembly sometime in 2013. James Eterno looks over at me and says “you’re motivating the resolution..” He wrote it. I helped a bit, but it was his idea. It is my first time speaking at the DA. I’m excited and nervous at the same time. A lot of old timers who had been in the union for over twenty years, our union leadership, and all my comrades in opposition are looking on. Mulgrew points to me. Oh no! But James has prepped me and I am ready. One of the earliest memories of my relationship with James Eterno.
I started with “Good morning everyone.” President Mulgrew laughed and said “you meant good afternoon.” I replied “for those of us in school all day, it feels like one long morning.” The room broke up laughing. I looked at James next to me, who was hysterical. Later Norm Scott would say “You’re a natural you know how to win people over,” but my confidence was built on the preparation with James.
The resolution called for the UFT to reject any evaluation system based on test scores, a major plank of the education deform movement, which the UFT leadership, ironically, supported, and our MORE Caucus rejected. Our side of the room was cheering while the front-center, dominated by Unity Caucus members and UFT staff, was hissing and mocking.
When the first UFT staffer rose to speak against me, James immediately called a point of order. He carried a pocket size Robert's Rules of Order with him. I had no clue what a parliamentarian was, nor Robert's rules, and absolutely no clue what a point of order was. James was the master and he asked, in his cunning, working class New York City accent: “Can we at least have a classroom teacher, someone actually working in a school, speak against this?” Our crew cracked up. It was classic James, always ready with an answer. Quick, smart, with knowledge of the contract and Robert's Rules, like a rabbi knows the Torah. The contract was James’ Torah.
When he was done arguing with the parliamentarian, James came right over to me and said, “Great job Mike, you were amazing today”. No compliment made me feel better than one from James. We may have won a few people over that day and it was the first of many resolutions we would write together.
Thanks to James’s mentoring and support, what could have been an embarrassing experience that might have made me gun-shy in the future, instead, built my confidence as an activist. Needless to say neither James nor I made many friends in the Unity Caucus that day. But James helped me discover a relaxed way of addressing even hostile forces in a manner that has worked for me over the past ten years.
James was a thorn in the side not only of union leadership, but even our comrades as well. It was fine to disagree with him and Norm. Boy did we disagree. We’re New Yorkers and trade unionists. Our disagreements may be a bit loud for others, but it was how we communicated. We never got mad, never hurt each other, and always laughed about it the next day.
He had the unique ability to get under your skin but still make you love him at the same time. I think everyone knew he was coming from a good place, a love for our public schools and union. Over the years our debates made me a better union organizer and human being. He taught me you can disagree but be civil. On any union or contract question in my school he was my go-to. He was a lot of people’s go-to for his encyclopedic knowledge and the process of collective bargaining.
Having a mentor like James Eterno had a major impact on so many people. Read the many comments on the ICE blog. After all, he was the chapter leader of one of the largest high schools in Queens, Jamaica High School. He served for a dozen years on the UFT Executive Board with New Action Caucus and then the Independent Caucus of Educators (ICE), which had merged with TJC and others to form MORE in 2012. That was when I first got involved in union politics. Outside of Randi Weingarten or Michael Mulgrew, James was one of the only UFT people recognized citywide.
Needless to say, ICEers are devastated by the news of James' illness and death. ICE, whose open meetings always revolved around some kind of food - people don’t fight as much when they are not hungry - continued to meet as an informal dinner group over the years. I was invited and made to feel very comfortable in what seemed to be a group with a sense of family that still resonates. Camille and James would often attend, sometimes with their kids. Norm would dominate with his rice pudding and long drawn out sermons that James and Camille would laugh at days after the meeting ended. Camille always joked that anything Norm says starts with a comma and ends with the ‘68 strike. One hilarious meeting was when James, Camille and I argued against Norm as to whether we should run in an upcoming union election. We were livid with Norm. We won the debate and Norm, as always, ended up leading the cause he had spoken against.
We worked to win back Executive Board seats and celebrated when we finally brought one of James’ first UFT loves, New Action Caucus, which he had left in 2003, back into the opposition fold due to his willingness to reach out, forgive old grudges, and work together to win these seats. One of the best phone calls I ever received was from James telling me “Congratulations we won the Executive Board seats”, he was as excited as I was.
We were always planning, plotting, one strategy session after another. Often on daily chats and phone calls until he was felled by a stroke in May. We tried to keep MORE as a place for regular rank and file where everyone would feel welcome. We challenged the union leadership at DA’s, Executive Boards, district meetings, borough meetings, wherever and whenever there was a public platform. We challenged Unity on the state level at the 2014 NYSUT convention where James was a driving force, along with a local Long Island President Beth Dimino. James and my other UFT hero, Julie Cavanagh, decided I should be one of the two speakers along with Lauren Cohen representing MORE. Julie and James revised and edited the speeches (Video here.)
When we got pushed out of MORE, James was half “I told you so,” always a naysayer to the far left influences within the group, but also upset that so much of his work had been lost. He mended fences with key players in MORE along the way. Despite being very anti-Unity, he gave me his blessing to run with them when I had the opportunity. With James it was never personal, only political.
In the last few years James was a driving force in bringing the various UFT opposition groups together and forming the United for Change coalition of seven or so different union groups (not an easy feat) to run against Mulgrew and Unity. He willed it, even though these groups had different ideologies and personalities. His crowning moment came when his wife Camille, a fierce and outspoken unionist, was the 2022 UFT presidential candidate, echoing James’ 2010 presidential run against Mulgrew.
Although we ran on different slates, Camille, James and I had a hearty laugh on the night of the election results. Camille didn’t win, but we still enjoyed talking the night away. Our love for the UFT may have taken us down different paths, but it didn’t divide us.
Being part of a chat group that touched base regularly often made my day. When my mom died James and Camille joined the rest of the group in a Shiva call. Not hearing his voice almost daily over the past nine months has left a major gap. One good friend told me upon hearing of Jame’s death, “some of the people who work at UFT don’t love the union as much as James did”. No truer words have been spoken.
He was not only my good friend, but my mentor, my teacher, a fellow New Yorker, traveler, dad, husband, social studies teacher and dedicated unionist.
It’s been hard the last few months, since he got sick, to feel passionate about union work. Now that he has passed I wonder if that passion will ever return but just thinking of him and the work he did will inspire me.
I will miss James so much. I miss him more than these words can express. I loved him as a brother in arms.
Mike Schirtzer is a high school teacher in Brooklyn, longtime union activist and UFT executive board member.
Editor’s Note: The Eterno family will celebrate the life of James Eterno, next week. Please join them.
The dates and times of the viewing and services are:
Mon, Feb 19, 2024 - Martin A. Gleason Funeral Home
149-20 Northern Blvd, Flushing, NY 11354
Viewing, 4 pm to 9 pm
Funeral & prayer service, 7 pm
Tue, Feb 20, 2024 - St. John's Cemetery
80-01 Metropolitan Ave, Middle Village, NY 11379
Interment service, 12 pm
In the fall of last year, we helped create a recovery fund for James and his family. The family will soon post more ways to express our grief, condolences and gratitude and celebrations of his life. In the meantime, the recovery fund page is still open and contributions to the family are appreciated. It goes directly to his wife, Camille, and his children, Kara and Matthew.
James was also a writing contributor to The Wire. His voice, mentorship, activism and friendship is a void we cannot fill. Our love, hearts and condolences go to the Eterno family.