Forgive the time gap between posts.
Unions have a mixed history in NYC as of late. They’re practically the last bastions of real power for the rank and file left in the country (I think the UFT is the only part of the AFL-CIO that isn’t currently being gutted through a complete destruction of its parent industry), but they’re victims of their own success.
The TWU Local 100’s strike back in 2005 highlights this: To unionists, they were pushed to a corner from a stunningly incompetent and avaricious state agency. (And, really, who doesn’t hate the MTA?) To non-unionists (aka the majority of the working population) they had it so good – earlier retirement, larger pensions, decent health coverage – there were doubts as to the motivation behind their obstinate nature: It’s hard to get the public to back you when you have it better than most of the public – even if it’s merely indicative of just how bad the public has it.
Which is a Catch-22, at any rate, and as any union will tell you is Divide and Conquer. But that didn’t stop Bloomberg from giving them a public relations black eye by branding them as faux-populists and this affected their bargaining power even while the city stood still.
But arguably, even with the bad press, the TWU was merely taking the fall for incompetent management. The UFT is a bit more muddy.
The UFT, in my opinion, had its seminal strikes in 1967 and 1968. One of the concessions of Albert Shanker’s strike in 1967 was that teacher retention was no longer tied with student retention – teachers could reserve the right to throw unruly students out of the classroom. 1968 solidified due process for teachers – made them for all intents practically unfireable. Add 12 years because that’s how long it takes to raise a child in the public school system, plus a massive turnover of 18,000 teachers in the fiscal crisis of 1975, and you have rot to the core: A system that is no longer held responsible to its primary task, cleansed of its old guard, and dug in enough to make reform impossible.
As I said before, though, the flip side of that is you have job security – a cynic like me would say an iron rice bowl – and benefits the envy of the working man. The UFT does things DC37 wishes it could do: Strike when it’s illegal to do so, bargain in the face of massive crises; make itself heard. But it also kept the system deadlocked. After the strikes and the layoffs, educational standards have been in an unremitting decline to the present day. College textbooks today were high school textbooks yesterday. Remedial English is taught in the Ivy League.
Ironically enough one of the side effects is a continual onslaught of idealistic new teachers thrown into the fire to stoke a smoldering system and burn out from being unable to jump-start the engine – a human wave of high-minded liberals – only to leave the public sector entirely or to stay and join the bitter entrenched for a chance at that iron rice bowl. Who needs job security in hell?
Bloomberg dealt with the BoE easily enough: Practically within the first ten minutes of office he turned over the leadership and created the DoE. But the real salvos haven’t yet been fired at the union. The ultimatum over the 1,500 proposed layoffs while Paterson and the state waited for the feds to bail the system out was just such a shot over the bow to Weingarten to rattle the union in the hopes of concessions, and for all the deliberation over what the schools need it’s in my opinion that one concession the union must give in order to save everything else (including itself, for we need strong unions, not brittle unions) is to regain the relationship between teacher retention with student retention.
I rant this much because I’ve been put in a very odd place and I know the shit’s about to hit the fan: Friday the UFT chapter leader spent most of the morning complaining about the administration targetting teachers for a staff turnover (a common enough tactic for new administrations). The major difference now in comparison to last year, of course, is that it happened to the chapter leader this time. The shit got weird when, that afternoon, an assistant principal – somewhat soused at a bar where the principal holds certain meetings with teachers (!) – started complaining to the rank and file about the obstinate nature of the union.
Come Monday morning, the union leader’s been ranting manifestos to aides and anybody caught; declaring war. But here’s the thing: The teachers don’t know what to do about the situation. Every union leader I’ve known hasn’t so much represented his staff so much as writ large his personal tribulations under the powers of his office (largely because nobody else wants the thankless job and thus lifts a finger to depose him) and this one is no exception.
So on the one hand I see some people on the warpath – even got a “whose side are you on?” this morning from an aide – and on the other hand I see arguably more people willing to shutter their windows and lay low for the oncoming storm.
I need the union. Everybody needs a union. A lot of the labor pool’s woes are tied to the lack of general unionization. But some situations call for a more dynamic approach and unions don’t do that. Good for teachers doesn’t always mean good for students.