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A tale of two teachers unions: Comparing the influence of progressive CTU with tepid UFT

I was asked to write an article for New York monthly The Indypendent on the differences between the left wing teacher unions in Chicago and Los Angeles compared to the UFT. I didn't have the space to a deep dive. Fundamental politics is that the left unions line up with the Bernie Sanders wing of the Dem Party - clearly a minority vs the UFT lining up with the Dem Party center/corporate wing. What better example than the UFT leadership support for privatized Medicare Advantage and undercutting Medicare, the only publicly controlled option for healthcare?

I also didn't get into the deeper reasons of a union controlled by one party for 60 years and how that helps distort the opposition forces and their ability to function. Let me also say right out, the opposition over the past 50 years has not been blameless but often tries to shunt off blame on the leadership. As part of that opposition for five decades I don't shun an analysis of what has not resonated with enough of the membership to topple Unity. I also didn't get into United for Change future prospects. Are teachers in Chicago and LA so different from NYC or is it a combo of leadership (no Unity Caucus in those cities) and oppo failure or are there deeper issues? Norm Scott's analysis was published at https://indypendent.org. Norm Scott is a retired New York City public-school teacher who taught for 35 years and was involved in three UFT strikes. He has participated in many UFT opposition caucuses since 1970 and is the editor of Ed Notes (ednotesonline.blogspot.com) since 2006. He is currently active with Retiree Advocate, a retiree caucus challenging Unity Caucus for control of the 60,000-member UFT’s retiree chapter.

Militant Chicago Teachers Union shows how to transform a city

Published May 4, 2023

On April 4, former Chicago public-school teacher and Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) organizer Brandon Johnson was elected mayor of Chicago. His opponent was Paul Vallas, former CEO of the Chicago school system and an adamant foe of the CTU who staked out tough-on-crime positions that were expected to give him a clear path to victory. The long and tangled history between Vallas and the CTU made this victory especially sweet. Vallas was the favorite of The Chicago Tribune, pro-charter school billionaires, the police union, Republicans in general and corporate Democrats, including the Obama wing of the party.

The rise of the leftist Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), founded in 2008 and taking power in the CTU in 2010, galvanized the nation’s labor movement with a 2012 strike that embarrassed Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Obama administration shortly before the 2012 presidential election. To pull off the strike, the CTU hired organizers, including Brandon Johnson, to spread its message. Street actions, including demonstrations at banks, were part of the strategy. The union’s power and influence in Chicago have only grown.

Despite leading two strikes in the last decade since taking power and a major pushback on COVID-19 strategies, the CTU remains popular with parents and segments of the public. While mainstream corporate media has downplayed the significance of the Johnson victory, left-leaning media hailed the win as a blow to the corporate wing of the Democratic Party.

Johnson got 80% of the Black vote, despite opposition from Black elites. No group was more indispensable to his winning campaign than the Chicago Teachers Union. The CTU, which has fought the austerity politics coming out of City Hall for over a decade, provided millions of dollars in donations and mobilized many of its 25,000 members to volunteer for Johnson’s campaign. More broadly, the CTU’s endorsement signaled that he was the candidate progressive Chicagoans should support. Another left-leaning social-justice union, The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), recently supported their city’s lowest-paid striking education workers by refusing to cross the picket line and closing down the school system for three days, leading to a massive win for those workers. UTLA has also led its own strikes and remains popular with parents and the public. In contrast to Chicago and Los Angeles’s teachers unions, New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) has partnered with the Adams administration to move its retirees from Medicare, the only public health-car option, to a privatized Aetna Medicare Advantage plan. An amendment at the union’s Delegate Assembly calling for the UFT to lobby to remove New York State’s ban on public-sector strikes led union leaders to denounce the move with arguments that ranged from the ­obscure to the ridiculous. Recent headlines on an opposition blog captured the moment: “Why doesn’t UFT leadership want us to have the right to strike?” Why have teachers unions in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York taken such divergent paths? What is New York City losing by having a neutered teachers union that eschews militant grassroots ­organizing in favor of insider politicking? What would it look like for New York City to have a teachers union with deep ties to its school communities as well as other social movements and that was ready and willing to throw down against our local billionaires in order to elect a bold progressive to lead the city? After all, the UFT has almost 200,000 members, making it almost 10 times larger than its sister union in Chicago and has more financial and ­personnel resources at its disposal.

Substance founder George Schmidt, Juanita Doyon, writer Susan Ohanian, and Norm Scott (Ed Notes) share a moment on July 29, 2011, the night before the Save Our Schools March on Washington. Substance photo by Sharon Schmidt.

Origins Matter

If progressives inside the UFT can topple Unity and make the union more militant, it will be a seismic event in public education and in city, state and national politics.

Left-wing teacher-union caucuses rose to power in Chicago and Los Angeles in the past 20 years in response to the all-out assault on public schools launched by the corporate-backed education “reform” movement. Meanwhile, the UFT has been stuck in its early 1960s origins at the forefront of the national teacher-unionization movement of that era. Most of its wins came in the 1960s as the result of militant unionism and rank-and-file action, including strikes. Ties to the city’s political elites have become fossilized over subsequent decades. When the corporate education-reform movement hit the city with Mayor Bloomberg’s takeover of public education in 2002 under a new mayoral control law, the union went along with many of his policies: charter schools, high stakes testing, rating teachers based on the outcomes and closing schools based on standardized test scores.

The early days of the UFT were often raucous, with a strong dose of democracy and rank-and-file activism that made some of the founders uneasy. Unity Caucus, a top-down political machine operating under the principles of democratic centralism and loyalty oaths, became their instrument of control once Albert Shanker took power in 1964 and has maintained its dominance.

Shanker was a strident anti-communist intent on keeping the left from having any influence within the union. Mechanisms were established to consolidate Shanker’s control of the UFT. As the UFT’s size grew, it gained sway over New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the statewide federation of teachers unions, and then the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the national union. In 1968, Shanker became the face of a deeply polarizing series of strikes by the teachers union that were directed against a Black-led experiment in community control of schools. In 1983, he backed a right-wing report, “A Nation at Risk,” commissioned by the Reagan administration that was the opening salvo in the war against public education and led to decades of bad education policy. Recently the report has been labeled as “fake news” for using intentionally-flawed data to make public schools look worse than they were. Shanker’s support prevented the AFT from taking a stand.

The anti-left roots were sown internally in the UFT, and their DNA animates a continued opposition to progressive, left movements inside the union. Since the late 1960s, opposition caucuses inside the UFT have operated to the left of Unity but have repeatedly been fragmented by their own sectarian politics and an anti-democratic union structure designed to keep Unity Caucus in power permanently. In 2019, four separate left caucuses ran against Unity with predictably disastrous results. In 2022, they all united under a shared banner and made inroads into Unity’s dominance, capturing more than one third of the total vote, and 43% of the active teacher vote. If the coalition holds together for the 2025 election, there may well be a serious challenge to Unity for the first time.

It always seems impossible until it’s done. But if progressives inside the UFT can topple Unity and remake the union in the image of its more militant siblings in Chicago and Los Angeles, it will be a seismic event in both public education and in city, state and national politics.

Norm Scott is a retired New York City public-school teacher who taught for 35 years and was involved in three UFT strikes. He has participated in many UFT opposition caucuses since 1970 and is the editor of Ed Notes (ednotesonline.blogspot.com) since 2006. He is currently active with Retiree Advocate, a retiree caucus challenging Unity Caucus for control of the 60,000-member UFT’s retiree chapter.

https://indypendent.org/2023/05/a-tale-of-two-teachers-unions/

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Comments:

June 5, 2023 at 3:18 PM

By: john kugler

elite intellectual dribble

norm you dont know what your talking about.

ctu is a reactionary left-wing facist organization that violates peoples' rights and steals from the working class.

dr kugler

https://subx.news

June 5, 2023 at 4:45 PM

By: john kugler

every man is entitled to their opinions

chris its is always good to talk to you ... the difference between me an you is you ran away from the fight and i stayed ...

you are a bootlicker that was kicked in the face

next time you should learn who is the enemy and keep your tongue clean ...

drkugler

June 7, 2023 at 10:03 AM

By: Sharon Schmidt

Unsigned comments

To Tom: You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at substancenews.net. We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

June 18, 2023 at 10:22 AM

By: Norman Scott

UFT

John,

You ought to come to NYC and see the right center thugs in the UFT boo and shout people who dare to want to read their contract before voting. Chicago has a CTU member as mayor. We have Adams, a cop. I'll take the left wing any day.

June 18, 2023 at 2:21 PM

By: Ed Hershey

Rose Colored Glasses

Norm,

yes Mulgrew and Co sound particularly terrible,

but your take on CORE and our leadership is rose colored at best (and yes, I know who our mayor is)

I'd like to add some nuance to the take on CORE:

"Despite leading two strikes in the last decade since taking power and a major pushback on COVID-19 strategies, the CTU remains popular with parents and segments of the public."

Both the 2012 and 2019 strikes were more or less popular with Chicago's working class public, sure. But the "job action" -- effectively a four day strike -- in January of 2022 was much less so. A big reason it was not popular was because that action was taken by "just the union" -- we did not, as a union, coordinate either with the SEIU and other union workers in our buildings, nor with our parent communities in a meaningful way. The CTU did not burn up all of its credit with that action, but we lost an appreciable amount to be sure.

"Johnson got 80% of the Black vote"

True, but again, overall voter turnout of 35% -- turnout was much lower in black communities. Brandon won in a squeaker, 52%. With that turnout, his 320 thousand votes mean just a little more than one in 10 Chicagoan's voted for him.

"union that eschews militant grassroots ­organizing in favor of insider politicking"

Again, I think CORE/CTU is better on this score than UFT, but be careful about the reality we have her. The complaint of rank-and-file militants such as myself since at least 2016, and probably earlier, has been CORE/leadership's focus on "politicking," that politicking resulted in the Johnson election most recently. CTU/CORE has been doing much less rank-and-file work since 2015, when its main focus turned to lobbying and Democratic Party insider-baseball (political work that, by its nature, excludes rank-and-file involvement).

The parts you mention about Shanker I do think are salient. Jackson Potter brought lefties and let them do a lot of the work to help get CORE started.

CORE did not "plan" to win the 2010 election, but the UPC internal fractures opened up early, allowing CORE to become the consensus on the 2nd round in that election.

The issue of retiree voting is a big one -- I wish you all luck.

June 19, 2023 at 3:30 PM

By: john kugler

barstool president

the difference between me an you norm is i physically worked with UFT and AFT people on training and member representation initiatives across locals in New York and DC using collaboration on several cases which helped us win contract fights and influence here in chicago.

the recent religious day give-a-way by brandon tooted by JPO as a win was rooted in a past UFT case.

ill take a brother or sister who has my back that i dont agree with, over a backstabbing bootlicker any day.

brandon stole union time from the workers he is not a unionist he is a political stooge of the ruling class.

your opinion is just bar room bullsit talk.

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