The UFT Must Mobilize Immediately to Fight Budget Cuts
Mayor Adams is at war with our education system, plundering it of an unprecedented $547 million right in the middle of the school year. Adams has no reason to cut the budget. While he claims that the migrant crisis is so expensive to the City that we now need other cuts to public spending, the numbers don’t add up – or rather, they do. As we heard in the November Delegate Assembly (DA), our revenues and reserves are in good shape. When a mayor seeks to decimate school funding without a valid financial reason for doing so, we know we must go to war – and we know it’s a war we should be able to win if we wage it right.
The good news is, in theory, our UFT leadership seems to agree on this. In fact, we owe the war metaphor to UFT President, Michael Mulgrew, who stated at the November DA (minutes above) that “there is a real possibility we’re going to war, because we have been through skirmishes, but we really haven’t been at war since Michael Bloomberg.” And there lies the problem – we haven’t been at war since Michael Bloomberg, which means we’re out of practice and potentially not ready for the fight. Indeed, it’s unclear if Mulgrew intends to mobilize members or attorneys. He seemed to suggest the latter when he stated: “We have a law at the state – maintenance of effort law. It’s weaker than it used to be, but I’m quite confident that the Mayor can’t cut education funding when revenues are up and reserves are down.” But legal fights can be long, and statements like ‘weaker than it used to be’ and ‘fairly confident’ aren’t glowing endorsements that a legal strategy would work. That means we’ll probably need to actually organize members in addition to our legal team.
To that end, New Action member, Daniel Alicea, asked the key question at Wednesday’s delegate assembly. He pointed out that when cuts were made under Bloomberg, we rallied in the tens of thousands. He asked if we’d do the same this time around. My minutes didn’t capture a committal ‘yes’ from Mulgrew, which leaves me wondering – what is the strategy? Will this be another instance of Mulgrew firing up the DA to think things are moving and use the outrage of membership to benefit his own political campaign, without ever moving to actually fix anything? Or will we actually go to war? This is always a pivotal question in the UFT – our union leadership is good at talking the talk, using both good news and bad news to make themselves look like fierce battling unionists; walking the walk is another story.
As Alicea suggested, we must minimally rally in the tens of thousands, alongside other unions in the MLC. And we should. To get there, we’ll need to really do some serious organizing. That’s because our organizing infrastructure is dangerously lacking. I’ve written about this in a number of places, especially during last year’s contract ‘fight,’ when it became painfully clear that we were going to accept peanuts rather than do anything substantive. To make matters worse, the little we did do, with the contract teach-ins and borough rallies, was apparently led by Amy Arundell, who is no longer in a leadership position for reasons we may never know. It’s unclear that anyone will be able to ‘replace’ her to effectively lead future organizing efforts. At any rate, the pitiful payoff from even those tactics—3% raises and barely any improvements to working conditions—shows that even our best-led organizing efforts cannot pass muster against Adams. UFT leadership knows this, but because a disorganized UFT membership has the counterintuitive effect of increasing the power of elected leaders and appointed bureaucrats, they’ve allowed our ‘organizing muscles’ to grow week.
For instance, UFT/Unity leadership has so vociferously committed itself to the position that New York City teachers should not have the right to strike that the union movement’s most powerful weapon to stop the cuts is implicitly off the table. I’m not even talking about striking outright. We know that a credible strike threat can be used productively without even going through with a job action. UTLA did so last year, getting double our raises as a result. But we aren’t strike ready, and Adams know that, so we can’t make that credible threat and leverage it to win back funding. This is a major failing of UFT leadership, who quashed a resolution in executive board last year that simply sought to train chapter leaders to be ready if anything ever came to a strike. Such trainings would have also been useful for making sure chapter leaders could do other types of organizing by the way – like getting members to go to rallies. Nevertheless, during the debate period of the resolution, a prominent Unity member and District Representative proclaimed “I am a firm believer that if you hang around the barbershop long enough you will get a cut. If we keep talking strike, members will say “when’s the strike!?’ Call me cynical, but I’d respond: when the mayor cuts your budget by half a billion dollars, you want members to at least be ready for that haircut. And you want the mayor to know that we’re ready.
I’m hoping Mulgrew wasn’t bluffing when he talked about readying for a fight. If he was, it’s up to us to make sure the call to action was more than just an empty speech. We must get out there now – lest the learning conditions of our students and working conditions of our members deteriorate such that any gains in our new contract become meaningless. This is a fight we need to win immediately, not retroactively. We’ll need to use all the tactics we have, and right away to keep untold damage from being done to our schools in the name of austerity.