Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

This Seems Familiar

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Hot on the heels of the United Federation of Teachers’ annual union rally this past Sunday, Hizzoner Bloomberg’s threatened yet another massive round of cuts to the schools and 2,500 teacher layoffs.

I can’t help but feel I’ve heard this one before, and though I’m no longer on the chopping block like I was the last two times he demanded his pound of flesh from the schools, it’s disheartening to see that no real progress has been made in the interim. It really is, consequently, a two year cycle: I was laid off in 2011 after a round of ultimatums between the NYCDoE and the UFT, and I was laid off in 2009 after a round of ultimatums between the NYCDoE and the UFT. Each time, the school budgets were cut, but the teachers’ jobs were saved, meaning that DC37 – the support staff – had to make up the gap.

I’m not surprised that Bloomberg is continuing to use this plan, as it’s worked for him in the past and, as a lame duck and a long shot for national office, he has no particular reason to concern himself with the blowback of his policies. Of course, it’s not as if anybody’s really paid close attention to the travails and tribulations of our nation’s largest school system and most powerful union anyway. Education reform has always been a snoozer, and until very recently, unions have been nothing but vilified in the national press.

I mention this all, however, because I got to attend the union’s annual rally at the Waldorf Astoria on Sunday (and the irony of a union holding a function in a notable bastion of privilege was not lost on me or the other attendees) where I got to jaw about their principles of solidarity. The points I made were twofold:

  1. Until the UFT figures out how to reattach teacher retention to student success, they will always be working from a position of weakness in their deliberations with the city. When their historic strike in 1967 divorced the two, standards slipped and a succession of poor alternatives have created the dysfunctional system we have today. More importantly, they have opened themselves up to a constant barrage of withering criticism from city administration and a black eye in public image: To the union’s eyes, what’s good for the teacher is good for the student. Not so in many parents’ eyes. Thus, they must be the ones to dictate how they will resolve this issue, and they must be proactive in bringing it to the city before the city comes up with a policy they don’t like, or else they lose the initiative and this will continue to happen. They must bend lest they break, and being the most powerful union in the country, they cannot afford to break.
  2. I cannot believe this has to be emphasized, but until the UFT extends a hand to the far broader, but much weaker, sister union of DC37, unionism itself will continue to weather defeat after defeat. Every UFT victory is soon followed by a DC37 defeat, and where they should be standing together, they are divided and suffering. DC37 would be a powerful ally with the UFT in securing public support and shoring up public image, but the UFT must first defend DC37 from the city. The only reason I can imagine that they are not already doing so is class division: They view themselves as educated professionals whereas DC37 are of largely lower positions, and if this is the case, this cannot and must not continue.

So I made these arguments, and unsurprisingly, their reception was largely based on the rank of the person I was talking to within the union hierarchy. The fact that I was a union member until I was laid off should be illustrative in just how they are hurting themselves with this current course. I would like not only to be working within New York Public Schools, but I would also like to be the member of a responsible and responsive union. That I am not, despite repeated attempts, is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed. Even were I to be hired in this atmosphere, I suspect next time a fight broke out, I’d be the first to be laid off once more. That is no way to run a union.

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