A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Archive for May, 2015

It’s Been A Hard Week

While I’m still convinced that the developing coalition of parents and educators committed to the defeat of the corporate education reform movement will triumph in the end, this has been a week to test one’s faith.

In the face of a tripling of the number of parents opting their children out of New York’s high stakes tests, our Regents, some of them newly elected, went and hired a new commissioner with a track record of supporting the tying of student test scores to teacher evaluation, merit pay and school choice, a person proud of her association with the Gates Fund, whose money has heavily influences the growth and development of the corporate attack on public education. Mary Ellen Elia immediate went about her task of trying to sell the same old crap, using a kinder and gentler tone than her predecessor John King.

If Elia’s hiring was not bad enough, my area’s Regent, Roger Tilles, who has been identified with the forces opposing the corporate attempt to destroy the public schools, found himself on the Regents interview committee that dredged Ms. Elia up and was party to the unanimous vote to move her forward and appoint her. I suspect his behavior is part of his maneuvering to become the next chancellor, a goal he has from time to time publically discussed.

To my chagrin, NYSUT our state union, warmly welcomed the new commissioner as did the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten thereby leaving our strong parent partners in the opt out movement wondering about our solidarity with them. Some of our opt out allies were so incensed they exhorted our teachers to seek new leadership for their unions.

This week also saw Long Island’s Senator John Flanagan, elevated to the position of Majority Leader, announced that his legislative priority for the remainder of the session is making the property tax cap permanent and lifting the cap on charter schools. The new Education Committee Chair, my area’s Carl Marcellino, echoed his leader’s goals amid allegations that he is being investigated for double dipping into his state expense account.

In Plainview-Old Bethpage, my own district, this week made clear that our board of education intends to close our very successful Kindergarten Center, thereby doing nothing to improve the education of our children but seriously worsening the working conditions of two thirds of the elementary teacher in our who teach them. The tawdry way in which this decision came to be made, a process devoid of any concern for the thought of the staff affected has brought district morale to a frighteningly low point. Through the eyes of the teachers, their governor has no respect for their work; their legislators pass laws threatening their continuing employment; their Regents and state ed department contrive regulation divorced from the reality of their work-lives; and where one might expect to find support for their efforts – their home district, they are met with contempt for their efforts, their thoughts rejected as not thoughts at all but emotions, emotional women whining because they won’t be able to eat lunch with their friends. The final irony was to have our board president label it all part of a great vision brought to us by our superintendent of schools.

Finally, this was a week that saw the staff starting to talk about creating a pool on how many district administrators will leave us by the end of the year. I wonder how long it will take before someone in authority thinks this flight just might be a sign of something seriously wrong.

Its’ been a hard week.

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Long Live the Book

Have you noticed how it is becoming almost impossible to have a serious conversation with education policy makers and leaders about the efficacy of digital media – how it is frustratingly difficult to get over the presumption in some undefined magical way reading something on a device of some kind is superior to reading an old fashioned book? A recent study from England that received national attention demonstrated that kids who attend schools that ban cell phones do significantly better on national exams than their counterparts in school permitting cell phone use. Just about no one in my district had anything to say about it. Technology is progress, and progress is technology. End of discussion.

Well maybe not. There was an interesting piece on NPR this morning. Listen to it. Pay particular attention to the two scientists at the end of the piece. See if it doesn’t suggest the need for a serious discussion. Maybe you have to begin it.

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In Search of a Unifying Vision

My friends in the both the opt-out and local teacher unions here on Long Island are upset this morning at the unanimous appointment of MaryEllen Elia to be the Commissioner of Education of New York State. Appointing someone too closely associated with the Gates Foundation and its poisonous impact on teacher evaluation tied to student test scores, merit pay, parent choice and other aspects of the so-called education reform movement is seen as a reaffirmation of the failed policies that have brought us to the present moment in which growing numbers of parents are voting by withholding their children from what they consider to be a plague of high stakes tests.

There is also considerable chagrin at the almost knee-jerk welcome to the new commissioner by NYSUT, AFT and New York City’s UFT. That welcome is being taken as evidence that the leaders of these labor organizations lobbied the Regents for a commissioner who supports the Common Core State Standards and the testing aligned with the standards. The UFT from whence Randi Weingarten rose to become the President of the American Federation of Teachers is a strong supporter of the standards and a tap dancer on the subject of high stakes testing. And here’s the thing, I do understand why these are difficult political issues for them.

Minority communities in this country by and large support the Standards and testing. They believe that for too long their children have been plagued by the low expectations society has had for them, low expectations born of the bigotry arising from America’s original sin of slavery. In their view, testing shines a light on what they see as their underperforming schools while the Standards will hopefully drive performance gains. The UFT exists in a city of minorities. To their credit, their membership reflects the diversity of the City. They understandably need to tread gingerly in the areas of testing and the Standards. But that’s not what they have done.

Whereas the suburbs with their higher performing, well- resourced schools, schools populated with students coming from families of higher median income , have increasingly come to question the Standards and their age appropriateness and have opted their children out of high stakes tests which they see as oppressive and a tool of a corporate reform effort, the City union has exerted political influence both in NYSUT and with the New York City legislative delegation to advance policy positions strongly opposed by local, suburban unions like mine.

State unions by their nature are coalitions whose members don’t agree on everything. The challenge to leadership is to define a unifying vision of such broad appeal as to make those contradictions appear secondary to the allure of the uniting vision. That has not happened yet in NYSUT. It can’t happen so long as its largest local, one that makes up a third of its membership, is willing to subordinate the needs of the rest of the state to its local interests. It can’t do that so long as UFT is seen as the tail wagging the dog.

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What The Numbers Don’t Say

Our school board is contemplating closing our unique kindergarten center and making our elementary schools k-4. If the question is can they shoe-horn all of the kindergarteners into the existing elementary schools, the answer is that the can. The superintendent and board can assemble data and charts to show that we can fit everything in. But what is forgotten is that schools are places of learning for children and workplaces for teachers, and we don’t have very good metrics to express the impact of changing their physical and sociological environment.

The creation of our kindergarten center was a matter of convenience. It was the least disruptive way to deal with what in 1996 was a bulging elementary population. Among the alternative at the time was opening an elementary building and redistricting k-4, anathema to elected officials. The public was divided at the time, with most favoring a kindergarten center, although there was wide disagreement as to where this center should be housed.

Over the years since, a new and unique school was organized by the staff, one with a culture all its own. Anyone caring to understand it need only with wit the staff of this building for a few minutes to sense their teamwork in support of providing children with the best possible start to their school years possible. How does one quantify the advantages to school beginners of have a team of experts in this area available to them? What’s the metric for the value of a whole school program designed for five year-olds? What’s the social value of all of our community’s kids beginning school together?

Teachers and related school professionals are seen by school managements as interchangeable cogs who can be reassigned at will without any impact on the educational program. Teachers know better than that, but can’t express their superior understanding to bean counters of this world and to the increasing number of school decision makers who know almost nothing about educating children and leading the adults who do that special job.

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A Clear and Simple Program for Our Schools

I’ve become a real fan of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich who has returned to academia and undertaken to use various media to explain complicated economic and social problems to general audiences. His film Inequality for All has in a very real way put the issue of the growing disparity between a tiny group of ultra-rich and the rest of our society at the heart of political debate in our country, with even the most conservative Republicans feeling obliged to address an issue which once would have belonged solely to the political left. From time to time he addresses education issues as in this Huffington Post piece accompanied by one of his short videos. His program for America’s public schools has been the agenda of my local union from the time I joined it over forty years ago. Sad to say, we are still a long way from achieving it. Take a look at what he has to say.

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Long Island School Board Elections

Tuesday’s board of education elections on Lon Island were but the latest evidence that a growing number of parents want an end to the corrosive effects of high stakes testing. Jeanette Deutermann, founder of Long Island Opt-Out, reports that of the 75 candidates her organization endorsed, an astonishing 57 were elected. Our state representatives ought to be thinking about these results because supporters of the movement will be coming after them next. Those who make war on teachers will have their careers ended on the battlefields they have created. When the movement starts being covered on the front page of the New York Times, the cretins who represent us in Albany better watch out.

My own local worked very hard for the election of Jodi Campagna, a representative of Deutermann’s Long Island Opt-Out. Some who were opposed to her attempted to brand her a one issue candidate, seeing her advocacy for opting out of high stakes testing as a narrow vision for the future of our school district. More aware voters, however, saw the Jodi’s advocacy for what it really is – a battle to preserve a free, rich, multi-dimensional education that prepares children for responsible adulthood as citizens of a democratic society. Those who fail to understand that vision behind the opt-out movement are ironically themselves possesses of a restricted vision for our schools, that limited view being best expressed in the phrase that so easily rolls off the lips of the ill-informed –“ college and career ready.”

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Yesterday’s Regents Meeting

I have a seemingly endless capacity to endure verbal torture and was therefore able to watch that portion of yesterday’s Regents meeting available online. By the end, a couple of things became clear. While the most often used word in the hour or so meeting used to talk about the meeting itself was “conversation,” there really was no conversation to be heard. Instead it was more a group of windbags, most of whom spent their very limited time talking about things that they frankly appeared not to understand at all.

Not one of them seriously challenged the opaque presentation by deputy Commission Ken Wagner, a perfect master of meaningless speech disguised as intellectual discourse, a character who always causes my mind to wander to memories of the comedian Professor Irwin Corey, even though they all expressed very politically correct concerns with the state’s testing regime and its tie-in to teacher evaluation. What was needed was for one, just one, of the Regents to shout out, “Just what the f…. are you talking about.” Instead, lest someone think the Regents were losing their nerve on testing aligned to the Common Core Standards, Ms. Tisch, brought them back in line with her summary of the “conversation” from which she took away that none of the Regents wanted to ‘back away” from a testing regime tied to the Standards. The only Regent with the nerve to challenge Tisch a jot was Regent Betty Rosa from the Bronx who expressed her doubts the tests and the standards, politely dissociating herself from the Chancellor’s remarks.

While none of the Regents was clear on what our current testing regime tells us either about the performance of teachers or students, all seem to agree that we need betters test that do what they would be hard pressed to say. No one participating in the meeting seemed to be even remotely aware of the damage they have done to teaching and thereby to the student of our state. Those who have been hopeful that the Regents will somehow ameliorate the idiotic changes the Governor and Legislature made to the APPR law will be sorely disappointed. Frankly, I never expected much from them and have long been in favor of doing away with this body that is not directly answerable to the public.

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Angry Andy Is Still At It

Beginning to rival Scott Walker in his contempt for public education and public employees, our governor was out on Sunday speaking to religious groups about his tax credit scheme that would allow for tax deductions to individuals and businesses that donate scholarships to non-profit parochial and private schools. Never one to temper his remarks, Cuomo poured out his usual venom, suggesting that “sending your child to one of these failing public schools is in many ways condemning your child to get a second-class education.”

Keep it up Angry Andy. Deprive schools of the financial resources they need, scare a cowardly legislature into passing a teacher evaluation law that has demoralized the state’s teachers and now come up with a scheme to reward your rich friends and funnel even more tax dollars away from public schools. If Cuomo is a Democrat and if the Democrats in the Assembly choose to follow him, then I guess I’m not a Democrat anymore. What a shameful disregard for the public good.

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Kids Need to See to Learn

Pam Gallin and some ophthalmologist colleagues went into some schools in New York City’s poorer neighborhoods and screened 2400 children for eye problems. Four hundred and fifty of them were found to need glasses, some of them so badly they couldn’t see the “E” at the very top of the eye chart. Some of the children who had been labeled behavior problems turned out to be simply trying to communicate with classmates because they couldn’t see what the teacher was doing. This is just one of the many difficulties poor children face. Many children miss numbers of day of school because of dental pain, their parents often not having the money for dental care or the ability to take off from work to take the children. Poverty reduces the quality of these children’s live in so many ways, ways that are not accounted for in much of the gibberish written about failing inner city schools.

Not only are these children the innocent victims of poverty, now the state of New York wants to victimize their teachers. Just imagine how many thousands of kids there are in the inner cities of our state who like the kids in Dr. Gallin’s op-ed need glasses but are unable to get them. Then remember that their scores on standardized test are used to determine the continued employment of their teachers. How stupid can our leaders be? Their vision is so much more difficult to correct.

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Always the Wrong Discussion

The subject of almost always seems to stimulate public discussion that is unrelated to the urgency given to it at any given moment. In other words, we always seem to be having the wrong discussion, or so it seems to me.

In my town, the burning issue is whether we should close our unique kindergarten school in favor of moving the students to our -1-4 buildings. Passions are boiling over this issue. Try to get a serious public discussion of the fact that the program we offer kindergarten children increasingly diverges from what we know from research on child development, and one is met with blank stares at best. Some weeks ago, I tried to say some of this at a public meeting of our board of education. I spoke about how an alarming number of the members I represent who work in the area of mental health report that they are seeing shockingly high numbers of children presenting serious mental health issues. After I was done speaking, one board member angrily took me to task for my remarks, as though I was the enemy of the people.

Our media are filled with almost vengeful criticism of our public schools, but how many people do we hear talking about a growing rejection of scientific findings by Americans as perhaps a symptom of a failing education system. Is it not a striking failure of our schools that so many Americans view the concerns of climate scientists that there is good reason to believe that human activity is adding significantly to the warming of our planet as a hoax? What’s wrong with schools that graduate millions of students who believe the earth was created 6000 years ago? So much of our public discourse springs ultimately from ignorance of almost cosmic proportions, ignorance that goes unaddressed by our society and its leaders who peddle ignorance for their own political advantage. We’ve reached a point where the Governor of Texas alerts his state National Guard to watch the maneuvers at a local army base, encouraging his citizens to believe that the federal government means to take Texas over. What kind of schools produce a citizenry that doesn’t laugh him out of the governor’s mansion?

Do we seriously think that Common Core is going to address this failure to equip several generations of Americans to participate knowledgably and intelligently in our democracy? How will these so-called standards increase voter participation from the 37 percent of the last election cycle? How are high stakes tests tied to teacher evaluations going to enable our children to free themselves from ignorance spawned beliefs that continue to plague mankind? What does the expression “college and career ready” mean if our public schools encourage more and more of our best and brightest to go into finance and hedge fund management? How are any of the so-called reforms that serve as the focus of our public discourse on education going to address our society’s sin for permitting generation after generation of America’s children to be raised in debilitating poverty, poverty that starts children falling behind their more fortunate peers literally from the moment of their birth?

So many serious questions about how we educate our children need serious discussion while we put our time, money and resources into what at best are marginal issues.

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It’s Not About Better Tests!

I’m always trying to teach our union members that there are always opportunities to develop political coalitions, often with people with whom we disagree on most issues. So, I’m thankful the Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education voted last evening to send the grade 3 through 8 field tests back to the education department. Anything that reduces the horrific waste of instructional time and delegitimizes the corporate sponsored test and punish regime is welcomed by me and the teachers I represent. Yet what became very clear from the discussion prior to the vote to return the field test was the lack of understanding on the part of most board members of why these field tests and the tests that they serve to develop are at odds with the goal of quality education.

Too many of our board members seem to think that if we could only get better tests, tests that are available for public scrutiny, they could support a high stakes testing regime. Their discussion last evening did not reveal any understanding of what high stakes testing is doing to the instructional program in our district and throughout the country and that these malignant effects are inherent in any such testing program, even ones decoupled from teacher evaluations. If standardized tests that compare students are central to student advancement, they will create a political pressure for teachers to teach to the tests. Add to the high stakes for students a linkage to teacher evaluation and you have a combination guaranteed to narrow the curriculum to those subjects and skills necessary for students to advance to the next step in the race to nowhere and for teacher to ensure their continued employment. The best of tests that become the be all and end all are ultimately antithetical to an education aimed at the intellectual and ethical development of children. The burgeoning ranks of the opt-out movement understand this. This movement is not about the quality of tests; it’s about their inappropriate use.

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Looking For Board of Ed Members

In looking to support candidates for the board of education elections coming up on the 19th of this month, more than ever we need to look for people with the courage to challenge the status quo, people who are willing to take some risks to defend our schools from the attacks from Washington and Albany.

We need to support people who understand the malignant effects of high stakes testing on students and teachers. Too many board members in my community talk a good game of being against testing but are willing in to do little beyond writing a letter and issuing a statement.

We need to find and support candidates who will hire and support school leaders who know how to lead, people who understand that loyalty has to flow down before it flows up. We need board members who understand that public institutions are not businesses and cannot be run on business principles that are focused on profits rather than the welfare of human beings.

Above all we need board members who believe the way public schools are currently organized to do their work is archaic, essentially an adversarial factory model that harkens back to a time when a docile, female workforce with few other employment options staffed our public schools. We need board members who know that there is untapped creativity and insight in the stifled voices of staff who are increasingly being ignored just when their thoughts are needed the most.

While my final though will appear controversial to many, to my mind it is the most important at this juncture. We need board members who understand that the quality of a school district is at best marginally related to the number of AP exams their high school students take. We need people who understand that the mission of public schools is the intellectual, moral and ethical growth of young people to the end that they become knowledgeable and engaged participants of our democratic society. We need policy makers for whom the phrase “college and career ready” expresses but a fraction of the very important work we do.

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Learning Summit

I can’t claim to have watched even most of yesterday’s Learning Summit, called by the Regents as they try to appear to seek informed comment from people who claim to know stuff about public education. From what I read this morning a consensus emerged that the new teacher evaluation law makes little sense from any number of perspectives. What will come of any of this, I have no idea. I did find it very interesting that UFT President Michael Mulgrew took credit in his testimony for getting the legislature to punt the teacher evaluation football over to the Regents. Why we would want to do that is beyond me, but I’m sure when I ask I’ll be told it is part of a grand strategy that I just don’t understand.

That aside, in the hour and a half that I watched, I must have heard the term “best practices” 30 or 40 times. It dripped off the lips of every expert contributing to the formation of a pool of almost meaningless drivel. Various puffed up characters, I frankly can’t remember their name, spoke with a degree of certitude about the best way to do teacher evaluations as though there exists a body of settled hard science. My favorite was a lady who claimed that teachers want the feedback from numerous observations. Somehow, in 40 years of teaching at the high school and college levels, and representing thousands of teachers over the years, I never met one that said that. For me the best practice is to run for the hills at the sound of some pompous ass talking about best practice.

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Crazier All The Time

The New York State Education Department has yet to write the regulations to implement the new Annual professional Performance Review (APPR) law, but just its published outline has forced teachers to think in ways that are inimical to quality public education. Numbers in my local union have talked to me about seeking to negotiate a protection for them from the clause in the law that says a teacher can’t be judged to be effective if she in ineffective as measured by her students’ test data. Serious, career professional teachers, teachers with reputations for excellence, teachers who are highly desired by our parent community, some of these teachers want a contractual guarantee that if they are found to be ineffective on the state growth measure, they will automatically be switched to a non-tested grade, in this way guaranteeing themselves that they will not be ineffective two years in a row and thereby subject to dismissal proceedings.

I supposed none of us should be surprised that people whose livelihoods are threatened will search for creative ways to protect themselves. The law itself even suggests this as an approach in that it provides that no student can have an ineffective teacher two years in a row. There are some rural school districts in this state that have only one or two teachers per grade who will be forced to play musical grades.

As I write, however, I’m unaware of any proposal in Albany to address the serious consequences of this crazy law. Instead, the Senate’s energy seems to be consumed by the political fallout from the indictment of Majority Leader Dean Skelos. There is pending legislation to delay implementation of this stupid law, bills to codify a parent’s right to opt her child out of the state assessments and assorted other measures that do nothing to treat either teachers or children fairly or protect the quality of our public schools. It grows clearer each day that representatives who won’t change this law will have to themselves be changed.

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If you missed Monday’s story in the New York Times on the Harvard study on the relationship between the neighborhood one lives in and one’s chances to escape poverty, I urge you to follow this link and read it now. Readers of my blog know that I have long supported policies aimed at the integration of economic classes in neighborhoods for its beneficial effects on the education of all children but particularly on children born into poverty. It has always seemed obvious to me that it is foolhardy to create circumstances where the poor live only amongst the poor and then expect that they will somehow life themselves up and out of the culture of these blighted neighborhoods. If you have believed that poverty is ultimately a matter of choice and that the poor are somehow responsible for their own miserable circumstances, read this peace and have a hard think about you beliefs.

Move a kid out of a blighted neighborhood and his chances to escape a life of poverty improve with each year of his escape from the blighted neighborhood of his birth. You significantly improve his chances of finishing high school and going on to college. You even statistically extend his longevity considerable, making economic integration a matter of life and death. We don’t hear much about integration anymore. It was a central issue of the civil rights movement in my youth. That discussion seemed to die with the death of the War on Poverty. Our failure to keep that discussion going has undoubtedly contributed to New York having become one of the most segregated places in our nation.

Reading this piece will also probably make you madder than you already are at how the stupid people in Albany believe that ineffective teachers are anchoring the children of the poor in life-long poverty.

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Smoke – No Substance

The latest news from Albany offers little hope that the recent budget deal that brought us a doubling down on the test and punish approach to teacher accountability will amended in favor of an approach to teacher evaluation that is fair to student and fair to their teachers. Senate Education Committee Chair Flanagan and his counterpart Kathy Nolan in the Assembly are working on a bill that they hope will cool the passions of a public that has expressed their outrage over the scourge of high stakes testing by over 200,000 opting their children out of the recent state assessments.

Nothing in this proposed legislation brings students relief from the effects of high stakes testing on the education they receive. There is nothing to lessen the unbearable pressure on teachers to teach to these pathetic assessments, even though the curriculum is strangled in the process. What Nolan and Flanagan offer is delayed implementation of a completely invalid method of evaluating teachers. Nothing in it gets us out from under the fact that no matter what the Regents do in creating regulations to implement this new law, good teachers are going to be found ineffective or developing without any easy way to demonstrate their competence. Does anyone seriously think that the conditions created by these tests will be ameliorated in any way from a study of the tests?

Once again, these legislators think we’re stupid. They think they can blow enough smoke to hide the fact they have yet to apologize for the damage they have done and yet to have mustered the courage to fix it. They think we won’t be able to sustain the passion and energy to continue to fight for justice for teachers and students. Somewhat ironically, they don’t seem to believe that we will hold them accountable. They were wrong about U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. They are wrong about the parents and teachers of this state.

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The NYSUT Convention

Last Wednesday, I wrote in hopeful anticipation that the NYSUT convention I was about to attend would be different than the ones I had attended in years past. I had the audacity to hope that this assembly of union activists would come together around a coherent plan to hold our political leaders accountable for what they have done to our profession in the name of accountability. I looked for a plan that would offer our membership hope, a membership whose anger over the dismantling of their profession is generating an anger that is gradually turning in on itself for lack of any other direction.

What I experiences instead was a masterpiece of hopelessness. That mood began to be generated at the Presidents Conference which preceded the convention. There President Karen Magee, completing her first year in office, chose to begin the meeting by trashing the previous union administration, coming just a hair short of accusing it of doing nothing to stop the attack on public education and the people who work at it. That depiction was contrasted to a litany of the great things the new officers have done in the span of one short year. In a matter of a few short sentences, Magee managed not only to stir up the residual anger that had slowly abated from last year’s hotly contested election, but she even found a way to piss off many of her own supporters who were enraged by her complete lack of tact. That tactlessness was repeated both in her speech to the convention and in the tone and demeanor as the presiding officer of the meeting. As the meeting wore on, the term solidarity grew increasingly ironic. From time to time, various speakers tried to address the situation by appeals to unity and solidarity. But solidarity is about the bonds that connect people. It must be created, not simply called into existence. Sadly, nothing at this convention furthered the tightening the bonds that connect us.

The 1900 union activists who schlepped to Buffalo for this meeting went home with no clear plan for them and their members to implement, no greater confidence in the strategy and tactics of their state leaders and most importantly no greater hope to share with their local’s members. One would be hard pressed to imagine a more pointless meeting.

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