Understanding the ‘Politics’ of the UFT’s Progressive Opposition

Members of Unity Caucus commonly claim that the High School Executive Board or its members have political motives. This was brought to a certain climax on Monday, Jan 23rd at the second January meeting of the UFT Executive Board with the word ‘political’ being used in response to a resolution that would have committed the UFT to fight the introduction of premiums to GHI. This post will probably seem like ‘inside baseball’ to most readers, but I think it’s worth analyzing what is meant by members of Unity Caucus when they claim opposition unionists are acting politically. I also think it’s worth assessing whether or not such a claim is true.

The meaning of political

What Unity Caucus means by the word political is ambiguous. However, the term tends to come up whenever a member of the opposition raises a resolution, asks a question, or publishes a blog post that Unity themselves would not have put forward, asked, or written. They could mean that we (the High School Executive Board, UFC, the opposition, etc) or some of us are:

  • (a). simply members of a union caucus/coalition who are trying to influence union policy or discourse within the standard confines of union politics and decision-making.
  • (b). a, but at a level of influence disproportionate to what our elected numbers should allow.
  • (c). simple elected unionists trying to effectuate changes in union policy that are irrelevant and external to our union.
  • (d). simple elected unionists who, for purely caucus-related reasons, want to destroy our union.
  • (e). controlled by outside political forces who want to change our union policy/discourse.
  • (f). controlled by outside political forces who want to destroy our union.

Possibility (a) is unlikely to be what is meant by Unity. If Unity Caucus members simply were characterizing us as fellow ‘union politicos,’ they would not be using the word ‘political’ as a pejorative. Note, however, that possibility A is how I would characterize the High School Executive Board.

Possibility (b) is more likely to be Unity’s meaning of political, but a thorough analysis excludes it. Yes, United for Change representatives only make up 7/102 seats on the Executive Board. However, about 42% of in-service teachers (and the majority of such teachers in high schools) voted for UFC candidates. Our lack of seats is frankly indicative of under-representation. Moreover, the power that Barr recently appeared to give us with his suggestion that we might be ‘burning the house down’ indicates that he does understand our power as reflected by the large number of people who voted for us. Therefore, we can exclude possibility b.

Possibility (c) isn’t entirely unlikely on its face. Some might suggest that activities like advocating for NYHA or against Medicare Advantage are external to our role as union policy makers. However, not all of the caucuses represented by United for Change support NYHA outright. And Medicare Advantage has only become an issue because of its specificity in respect to UFT retirees. A thorough look at our resolutions shows that all of them are related to specifically union policy. In fact, Unity Caucus resolutions sometimes do otherwise, as indicated by a resolution last DA that had to do with the situation in Iran. So possibility C is excluded both because it is not true of UFC and because it is sometimes true of Unity (and would thus be hypocritical). 

Possibility (d) is unlikely, because an organic grassroots organization of leftwing unionists would not logically want to destroy the union unless they had some external reason to do so. Therefore, they would not seek to destroy the union for purely internal reasons. As specifically presented, this can therefore not be Unity’s view.

Possibility (e) is likely to be Unity Caucus’s interpretation, though it is not actually possible. Unity may view outside political forces like DSA or other groups as having some sort of ‘top-down’ mechanism which they employ through UFC-elected delegates, chapter leaders, and executive board members in order to influence union policy. The problem with this view is that the opposition is a coalition of union groups and independents that don’t have the same relationships with other outside groups. New Action, for instance, does not currently have any relationships with any organization outside of the UFT/MLC. Ironically, Unity Caucus may be projecting its own relationship with the Democratic Party, which arguably does take such a form.  Some opposition members believe that Unity’s relationship to the DNC is why they are supporting Medicare Advantage, which our unions did not support until the DNC adopted such a policy. Unity, which, unlike UFC, is a single coherent organization and in an actual position of power to warrant any influence from outside organizations is much more likely in fact to have policy handed down to it from an external ‘political’ organization. Out of sheer projection, therefore, it is possible that Unity Caucus misguidedly thinks we are controlled by political forces, because they, to some extent, may be themselves. Again, while this is a possible thought of Unity members, it is not actually possible to be true of the union opposition.

Possibility (f) is not likely to be a view of Unity Caucus, though it is possible that Unity would sometimes rhetorically present such a view in order to sway UFT members to its side (or possibly, to divide the opposition). As the precondition to F is E, and E is not possible, this possibility is also not possible in real life.

Does the opposition believe that Unity is trying to hurt its own members?

The opposition is a diverse group with a shared platform that sometimes puts us at odds with Unity and union leadership. Let’s be clear: there’s nothing ‘political’ coming from opposition, not in a pejorative sense. We simply seek more aggressive and progressive solutions to the problems facing our membership. To that end, the High School Executive Board fits the definition of definition A: as simply members of a union caucus/coalition who are trying to influence union policy or discourse within the standard confines of union politics and decision-making.

Nevertheless, one reason that Unity has painted UFC as political is because they believe that the opposition, especially bloggers of the opposition, are painting UFT leadership in too negative a light. Bear in mind that I can only speak for myself here, but I’d like to dispel that claim. I do not believe Unity is actively trying to harm UFT membership for the sake of doing so. Rather, I believe Unity sees problems like healthcare costs being out of control and seeks out too conservative a strategy in response. In a time when things are getting worse, taking a moderate or conservative approach often means accepting some decline. Not aggressively pushing for the City to find funding solutions like taxing the rich instead of putting more costs onto retirees or in-service members is what leads to new premiums in GHI or the switch to Medicare Advantage. What’s worse, in order to undercut that the union leadership is accepting some decline, they often try to mislead membership into thinking that things are not getting worse, and that they are even getting better. Medicare Advantage with the option of having to pay for hitherto free Medicare is not better. Putting out an RFP to replace GHI with something 10% cheaper or add premiums to GHI is also not better.

As long as UFT leadership puts out conservative solutions that accept some decline, they should accept that the union opposition will put forward solutions in resolutions that seek the opposite. Moreover, as long as UFT leadership misdirects membership that they are ‘making things better’ when they are actually accepting some amount of decline, they should accept that there will be some criticism published in blogs and social media as well.