With time running out to reverse budget cuts, UFT leadership opts to mobilize lawyers, but not members.

Over a month ago, I penned a piece entitled “The UFT Must Mobilize Immediately to Fight Budget Cuts.” I argued that, with draconian budget being forced through, we had to specifically mobilize UFT members and not just rely on the usual non-militant methods.

Despite Mulgrew’s rhetoric of going to “war” with the Mayor, at that time I worried that we might once again do the bare minimum in terms of member organizing – something which would be particularly problematic because alternate legal strategies might be doomed from the start. As I opined then, “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.’ Still, 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.”

So far though, the legal strategy appears to be all or most of what UFT leadership is doing. Yesterday, surrounded by about three people in the cold, Michael Mulgrew announced that the UFT had co-filed a lawsuit against the City – about a week after DC37 did the same thing. Look, I hope the lawsuit works. But Mulgrew said it himself – the law is “weaker” than it used to be. And the lawsuit, which doesn’t even ask for an injunction or temporary restraining order, reads like a case we know we’re unlikely to win. Might the right judge side with us? Sure. But it’s clear that we might end up on the losing side here – which is precisely why we needed to mobilize members too.

But, on the mobilization front, UFT leadership has utterly failed. We’ve had one singular meeting to galvanize UFT members – a December 5th Zoom meeting that peaked at about 90 participants, including UFT staffers, only to dwindle down to fewer than 50 by the time we were actually discussing what we could do to mobilize. There was never a follow up. And, while Daniel Alicea pointed out in a November Delegate Assembly that when budget cuts happened under Bloomberg we rallied in the streets in the tens of thousands, this time around, there’s been no such mobilization of members. We had a single rally, organized not by us, but by the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, which ran during the school day and thus could only muster the attendance of a handful of paid union staffers – not rank-and-file teachers.

The best we seem to be able to do is ask for members to send letters to council members – something we can do in mere seconds by simply clicking a link and shooting out a pre-written email. Despite the ease with which this can be done, and the plethora of communications UFT leadership has made to sign this form over the last several weeks, as of this morning, only 6,514 people have done it, including, I’m sure, many non-UFT-members. In a union with over a hundred thousand members, this level of non-mobilization goes to the level of incompetence.

I hope this lawsuit goes somewhere. I really do. Our teachers and students need the UFT to win here. But, without mobilizing members, and only doing a legalistic strategy that seems doomed to fail, supplemented only by some minor lobbying of City Council, I worry that all we’re seeing is optics that might help Mulgrew’s next UFT Presidential campaign, but which is quite unlikely to actually work.

As we aren’t actually being mobilized in the fight, we’ll simply have to ‘wait and see’ what happens – doing what we can to stop the cuts ourselves from the sidelines. Don’t worry, though, Mulgrew emailed us yesterday that he “will keep you updated as this process continues.” Updated, yes – mobilized, no.

Nick Bacon is a co-chairperson at New Action Caucus. He is also an elected member of the UFT executive board

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