2005-11-04 / Columnists

School Scope

Good Night, And Good Luck
By Norman Scott

The titanic struggle over the UFT contract is over. The Survey SAYS – well, I don’t really know what the survey says, since I am writing this (Nov. 2) the day before the vote count at the American Arbitration Association. A bunch of us will be heading over to the AAA on Nov. 3 as observers – though by the time the ballots get there any tampering that might have been done will be done. Instead of having members mail ballots directly to the AAA, they are collected by chapter leaders and mailed. As one chapter leader emailed: “There is no way to prove/disprove that a ballot actually came from the person. Folks can be absent or not vote at all. Who is to stop those ballots from being forged? Have the ballots been under lock and key or laying in some desk, car, or house?” With votes being cast in see-through envelopes when held up to the light (one Unity Caucus CL was actually observed doing just that) dumping Yes votes is certainly possible.

I asked the UFT if we could submit a list of schools and names given to us by suspicious teachers to check at the AAA and they said “absolutely NO” even though the AAA says it would be possible.

It should be pointed out that the overwhelming majority of chapter leaders, including most Unity Caucus and pro-Yes supporters, are honest and unless a few percentage points separate the two sides, the ultimate result should not be affected. Under what conditions should UFT members be suspicious? If your chapter leader seemed to be desperately in favor of the contract and kept selling it relentlessly, handed you a flyer titled “The Consequences of Voting NO” along with your ballot, was vigorous in keeping VOTE NO literature out of your school, and discouraged an open discussion of the contract, hell YES!

In the midst of the entire ruckus, I saw George Clooney’s stark black & white movie chronicling the epic struggle between Edward R. Murrow and senator Joseph McCarthy who maligned anyone and everyone as traitors to America. It packed quite a wallop.

The parallel to today, where people who questioned whether weapons of mass destruction existed were branded as traitors while politicians and a docile press corps went along is certainly valid. In a world where one president is almost driven out of office for crimes against morality while another skates over crimes against humanity (a recent bumper sticker: “No one died for Clinton’s lies”) we should not be surprised. The film uses lots of original footage. What a scene when army counsel Joseph Welsh drives the final nail in McCarthy’s coffin by challenging one more smear campaign with the statement: “Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?”

They say all politics is local and we have seen our own version of McCarthyism in the UFT campaign for a YES vote, smearing opponents as anti-union, traitors, and hurling accusations that we were using terrorist tactics. They have temporarily dropped the charge that we actually serve BloomKlein by being critical of UFT leaders – if true we would be avid supporters of the contract. But have no worry, that charge will resurface as soon as the smoke clears and UFT agents run around the schools trashing Klein for leading an assault against teachers using the very contract the UFT negotiated.

I had my own McCarthyite experience at PS 215 in Rockaway on October 21 when I attempted to drop leaflets off for the mailboxes. At almost every school I stopped people were either welcoming or at least neutral and when I got to see the principal and explained that both sides should be heard, they agreed after looking over the leaflet. At PS 215 the secretary told me I would have to speak to the principal. But she called the chapter leader instead. When I heard her practically whispering into the phone I knew right away I was in a school where Unity Caucus politics reigned. The chapter leader appeared as if by magic and with an incredibly nasty attitude, looking at me like I was carrying the avian flu, said I could not leave leaflets. Marilyn Cooper, the District 27 rep had told her that. Not only could I not leave leaflets but a teacher in the school who had tried to distribute leaflets was not allowed to do so. Did people at PS 215 get pro-yes material? I bet they did. So much for giving them the opportunity to hear all sides. If any teacher at PS 215 wants the staff to hear all sides in the future, contact me at norscot@aol.com or contact the Wave.

I called UFT staff director Michael Mendel right then and he affirmed that the UFT had just overturned 30 years of rulings regarding the right to use mailboxes for the distribution of union-related material. Later that day he issued a directive to all chapter leaders in the city to that effect. Since chapter leaders already use the mailboxes, and almost all of them had distributed the notorious “yellow” leaflet attacking opponents of the contract, this amounted to a de facto shutting down of equal access. By the way, UFT district reps that didn’t “trust” pro-No vote chapter leaders to distribute their materials actually went into schools and stuffed the boxes themselves. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. The interesting thing is that the DOE didn’t attempt to keep people from accessing the mailboxes, it was our own UFT. Message to UFT leaders: “Have you no sense of decency, Sirs (and madams), at long last?”

After I left PS 215 I headed over to the VOTE NO rally at UFT headquarters with new verve and vigor. I had a poster of the UFT leader and the mayor in bed that was drawn by PS 232 chapter leader Bob Sentnor. When I had stopped by the Howard Beach school a few days before with leaflets people were grabbing them like crazy and Bob reports that he took a vote after Marilyn Cooper came to sell the contract and with her in the room 80% said they were voting NO! Even though Bob is opposed to the contract, he still made sure to give teachers the opportunity to read the official UFT pro-vote leaflets and if the vote had been in favor he would have carried out the wishes of his staff by voting YES because he truly represents the members of his staff. What a contrast to the chapter leader of PS 215!

About 225 people showed up at the rally, which was ignored by the entire press corps except NY One (and The Wave, of course). For a rally called on a few days notice, using Internet outreach only, this was a significant event because many people who had not been active before came from all over the city on a rainy Friday afternoon. Sentnor’s drawing got a great response.

The contract has done more to raise consciousness about the union, which many teachers consider to be no more than a dental and health plan, than any event in recent memory. As the UFT sent hordes of full-time employees who will get the 15% but not have to work under the contract into the schools, reports came back that many of these “suits” were so heavy-handed and threatening (“we will have a long strike and you will be hit with 2-1 penalties if you turn this contract down”) that it caused a counter-reaction as it made people more conscious than ever of a Unity machine whose primary interest is in perpetuating itself in power.

Will this activity become focused into creating an effective alternative to Unity Caucus or will things settle down? UFT leaders are concerned enough to start moving to the next phase: a PR blitz to “heal” wounds over the contract vote. Coming soon – we have to unite against our common enemy Joel Klein who will use this lousy contract against us and groups like ICE and TJC are traitors and members of Al Qaeda. You can’t make this stuff up. Just wait to see the massive UFT Communications Dept spin the web. They believe they can sell ice (pun intended) water in the winter.

An early sign of this strategy occurred at a contract forum held by Teachers Unite and the Brooklyn Teachers for a Fair Contract on Oct. 25 at PS 261 K that attracted a small group of people. Both ICE and TJC were invited. Surprisingly, Randi Weingarten, straight off a plane from Denver, showed up to take part in a very open and frank discussion. While she may have thought there would be more people, she was clearly concerned about groups like BTFC, which represents younger teachers, sliding towards the opposition. While defending UFT policy, Randi, who can be very effective in these situations, was also being very conciliatory. The people from BTFC, while surprised at their special guest, did not back down and expressed their dismay at the lack of defense of chapter leaders, the lack of unity with other unions, and the poor attempts to ally with parents. They were insulted by the way the contract was sold and objected to the intimidation used.

Randi clearly has some fences to mend but the PR machine knows what it’s doing and with the standard attempts at cooptation – we will put you on a committee (that will be dominated by Unity reps) to give you the impression you have some influence, don’t sell her short.

This afternoon, Randi is meeting with the District 27 chapter leaders over the insane micromanagement that takes place in Region 5. If she tells them that micromanagement will go away if the contract passes (like so many UFT reps claimed) will anyone believe it? Advanced word is that some conciliatory process will attempted to be worked out. Does any teacher in Region 5 believe this will work? Some have raised the conflict of interest between what often looks like a very cozy relationship between the UFT and Region 5. After all, the UFT charter school is housed in the Region (if the UFT really stands up for its members can they suddenly be asked to leave?) and the UFT has often praised the partnership with the Region.

While Randi Weingarten is trying to mend fences with one hand, the winds of change are tearing them down behind her.

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