Too much of what is left of the labor movement has devolved into a pathetic insider game in which leadership puts more time, effort and thought into their relationships with state and national political figures than developing an agenda and strategy for the mobilization of its membership. My latest experience with that reality was the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) Presidents Endorsement Conference held yesterday in Albany.
I wrote on Monday that this conference posed the first big challenge to the new leadership of our state union. Could they chart a new political course away from the accommodationist policies of the past and begin to shape a new political strategy of supporting candidates that pay more than lip-service to our union positions, candidates with unequivocal records and positions in support of working people, public education, economic and social justice. Sadly, the new leaders approach to the endorsement of candidates for state office was indistinguishable from that taken by past leaders. To be fair, as I write, the NYSUT Board of Directors is in the process of making the final decision on endorsements, but while they may change a few things at the margins, it appears almost certain that NYSUT will take no position in the race for Governor of New York.
I and some others tried to advance the position that we support Zypher Teachout in the Democratic primary, and, should she be unsuccessful, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins in November. We did so because we and, more importantly the members we serve, view Andrew Cuomo as the worst governor on the issue of public education in our memory. He has hobbled our schools with a property tax cap that has cut programs to children and led to the layoff of thousands of our members. At the bidding of his hedge fund and real estate mogul bankrollers in New York City, he has promoted charter schools. He has been a leader in the mindlessly stupid tying of teacher evaluations to student scores on standardized tests. He has done near to nothing to stop the totally incompetent implementation of the Common Core State Standards, claiming that he has no control over education in our state. On education issues alone, he has done our members such harm that to take no position on his re-election bid as to make no sense to our membership. Worse this failure to support candidates whose positions on education issues literally mirror our own poses the very real risk of weakening the membership’s will to be politically active. Still worse, the coalitions we have been building with parents to end the standardized testing mania will not understand our fearful reluctance to take King Andrew on.
Our leaders are not without reasons for their recommendation of no endorsement. Their reasons, however, are what reveal that lack of new thinking and direction. A deal has been negotiated with some of the other unions in the state to have the New York AFL-CIO take the same position of no endorsement of Cuomo. I’m absolutely sure that a great deal of thought and effort went into these negotiations for what I also agree is a desirable outcome. But here’s the problem for our own organization, and it’s a very serious one. All of this insider negotiation by state union leaders left the members out. No one in NYSUT had any thought to see if this strategy had the support of the locals that make up NYSUT. It seems clear that few if any members of the NYSUT Board of Directors knew about this plan. If they did, they certainly kept it a secret.
I would bet that at every general membership meeting of my local, I have found a way to remind our members that by myself, I have no power – that whatever power I have comes from management’s understanding that our members are behind what I say. NYSUT leadership has not understood that for some time. They clearly still don’t.