The Crisis in the UFT Explained with a Bit of Help from Joe Hill

The Crisis in the UFT Explained with a Bit of Help from Joe Hill

It is often said that our union, the UFT, is the strongest union local in the country. It wields influence in Albany, Washington and beyond. Due to its large numbers it plays an outsize role within the AFT and by extension within the AFL-CIO.  The Presidents of our union go on to become big-time political players and this gives the impression of strength and massive influence. We can see our leaders breaking bread with billionaires and high-ranking legislators, having the ear of power, having a seat at the great tables where the decisions are made which affect the lives of millions of workers. Our union controls huge pension funds on Wall Street, our union bails the city out of financial hardship, our union manages health care for huge numbers of people and so on.

“Poor Block, he died one evening, I’m very glad to state;

He climbed the golden ladder up to the pearly gate.

He said, “Oh, Mr. Peter, one word I’d like to tell,

I’d like to meet the Astorbilts and John D. Rockefell.”

Old Pete said, “Is that so? You’ll meet them down below.”

  At the same time, on the job, it feels like the UFT is among the weakest unions in the city. When a worker encounters an abusive administrator or a gross violation of the contract, they are told to ‘obey and grieve’ (which has become something of a mantra for the UFT in recent years). We are supposed to follow the directives and contact the union office afterwards. We are then told that there is a “loophole” in the contract that allows said administrator to do as they like and so on. With each new contract negotiated by the UFT we see more time added to the workday, we see more givebacks and concessions, we see more rights stripped more pressure added and so on. This type of ‘pragmatism’ from the Unity Caucus may appear shrewd in the short run, but it is eroding the fabric of the union from within. Every day we can hear members saying: “Why can’t our union be more like the cops or the firemen? why are we so weak? why is the city always taking advantage of us? “

“Block hiked back to the city, but wasn’t doing well.
He said, I’ll join the union, the great A. F. of L.”
He got a job next morning, got fired in the night,
He said, “I’ll see Sam Gompers and he’ll fix that foreman right.”
Sam Gompers said, “You see,
You’ve got our sympathy.”

     The contradiction between the rumor and reputation of strength and the experience of weakness provokes strong feelings among the workers which are by turns repressed, accommodated, or ignored by the Unity Caucus leadership. It seems like their job is to manage our discontent instead of solving the problems that trouble us. The leadership presents itself as ‘insiders’ privy to secret information that invalidates our concerns, as ‘responsible parties’ aware of the complex machinations of city governance that the rest of us cannot and do not understand. Unfortunately for them reality was not written by Aaron Sorkin, and actions like this have serious consequences. This approach is insulting and alienating for the majority of the membership and empowering for the select few who are appointed to play West Wing while the rest of us suffer. For many outrage turns to cynicism, disengagement, apathy and even outright hostility as the recent campaign to withhold dues has demonstrated.  This approach where the union acts like another administrative body over the workers, despite all of Unity’s protestations to the contrary and false accusations against reform movements, plays directly into the hands of our enemies. When we have 25% of people voting in elections and we have a movement to withhold dues from the union for non-representation we have a crisis. 

When rank-and-file initiative is so stifled that it is forced to take the form of a self-destructive secession drive this should raise the alarm for all of us who value our union. This tendency will only grow if the leadership of the union buries its head in the sand. We need to democratize this union substantially if it is to survive. We need to shift from a union that filters member demands down to what is palatable to the employers and the donor class to a union that turns member demands into a necessity that the employer must learn to cope with. 

Those of us who have watched the decline of the UFT under Unity Caucus mismanagement and who are determined to save the union and empower the membership have United for Change in the upcoming election.  Our platform addresses many of the issues that are currently vexing the rank and file and opens the union up to the membership in a way that is responsive to 21st century problems.  

-Ed Calamia

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