“No One Is Coming to Save Us”

Against the Current No. 211, March/April 2021

Kit Wainer interviews MORE activists Shoshana Brown, Ellen Schweitzer, Mike Stivers & Annie Tan

A GROUP OF New York City teachers formed Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) in 2012 as a fusion of a few oppositional groups within the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). The UFT represents teachers and several other categories of school employees. It has roughly 110,000 active (still working) members and roughly 60,000 retiree members and is the largest American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local in the country.

At the beginning of 2020 MORE had roughly 100 members, fewer than half of whom were active. But their membership exploded in March 2020 when the pandemic broke out and ultimately forced schools to close in New York City. Today MORE has more than 750 dues-paying members.

Kit Wainer, a recently retired NYC teacher active in MORE, interviewed four members of its steering committee: Shoshana Brown, Ellen Schweitzer, Michael Stivers and Annie Tan on January 18.

Shoshana Brown is a social worker who began working in the criminal defense office at The Bronx Defenders. Her objective is to tear the walls down brick by brick of every prison in the United States. That’s taken her to being both the director at a harm reduction agency, which often is the last step before long-term prison sentences, and now to schools, which is the beginning of the school-to-prison pipeline. She has been teaching full time for a total of nine years, six of those in the New York City system.

Ellen Schweitzer teaches at Stuyvesant High School, where she has worked since 1998. She is currently a delegate to the city-wide UFT Delegate Assembly (roughly 3000 delegates) and has been for years. For three years she served on the UFT Executive Board — the bi-weekly elected leadership body of 100 members — when she was a member of the Teachers for A Just Contract Caucus. She has also been a chapter leader — the school-based union representatives who handles grievances and runs union meetings at the school — for six years.

Mike Stivers, who is a special education teacher at Brooklyn High School, joined the discussion midway through.

Annie Tan is a special education teacher in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. She has been a part of the NYC public school system since 2016 but started teaching in 2011, as part of Teach For America at a charter school in Chicago. As soon as possible she transferred to a public school and started organizing with Chicago’s CORE caucus, which won leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union in 2010. She was co-chair of the special education committee of the CTU for two years.

Kit Wainer: Although there was an attempted reopening of the NYC schools in the fall and some elementary schools have now reopened, how do most members of the UFT, at least in your experience, feel about the responses to this crisis from the Department of Education (DOE) and from the UFT? Now that we’ve completed half a school year some elementary schools are open, but middle and high schools are all closed.

Annie Tan: Currently, “My school is open.” I’m putting that in quotations because as of December elementary and District 75 in pre-K and K-3 opened. But my school is closed tomorrow and through the rest of this week because we have COVID-19 cases.

That’s true in over 300 buildings in the DOE. Because many schools are located in the same school building, this means upwards of 400-500 schools are actually closed tomorrow, which is also the highest number of school closures since last fall’s reopening.

At my school, members are resigned to the fact that Mayor De Blasio will keep schools open as long as possible. The ones that can’t take it anymore have gotten individual accommodations if they can. For example, I was teaching in-person until about November 5th. Then I took a medical accommodation after determining it was not safe to be in the school building.

I think a lot of elementary school teachers I’ve talked to feel there’s no one coming to save us, that we’re just babysitters, that the union has gone along with this plan to keep schools open indefinitely regardless of whether it’s safe or not.

Part of it is because Trump refused to fund schools if they don’t attempt to reopen in-person. That’s one calculation. Another is that our union doesn’t want members to get laid off, so they’ve negotiated directly with the mayor and other government officials to reopen in-person, regardless of whether it’s safe or even effective.

I’ve also seen many, many staff changes. I’m currently teaching in-person and remote students at the same time.

We’ve given out a MORE survey to over a thousand educators. Many are saying that they’re teaching multiple modalities right now because of staff shortages across the school district. But you can’t teach both in-person and remote students at the same time without compromising in some way on instruction or materials or resources.

Inevitably it’s the in-person students who are going to get the attention. Millions and millions of dollars are being spent on PPEs, temperature checks and staffing to ensure that the 20% of students who are in-person and only part-time are getting the resources and time they need to actually be in-person.

Just to say very clearly that most schools have students in-person part time; right now most students in my school only get instruction two to three days a week. This means that maybe only 5-10% of the school system is in-person at any given day.

The vast majority of our learners are fully remote. The staff in my school has said truthfully we’ve focused so much on in-person issues that the remote learners are not getting the attention they need.

And the staff is not getting the training needed to help their remote learners, who make up 80-90% of students on any given day. I know that’s a lot because there’s a lot here with the reopening. It’s been really complicated, but I know my staff is very, very demoralized right now.

My staff is very, very worried that the COVID-19 testing that’s happening within school buildings is completely inadequate. The mayor promised we would not open if our COVID-19 positivity threshold was at 3%. But after we reopened in December that figure was quickly discarded.

We’re almost at 9%, I believe, and staff at my school isn’t getting tested right now inside the school building. New York City contact testing and tracing is completely overwhelmed, and cannot test more than a 20% randomized sample of students and staff.

Also, we aren’t getting results in a timely manner. I got tested at school at the end of October, and still haven’t gotten that result.

There are lots of issues of non-timely tests, or people losing tests. The NY Post reported that a staff member was called saying they tested positive for a test they had taken earlier that week. But it was a different staff member who tested positive.

Currently to close the school right now there needs to be two or more “unlinked” cases. But the word unlinked doesn’t mean what you think it means. Last week before my school was closed, one case was linked because it was traced to a household member. Another person had an “unknown” case. Even though we had two cases, we still didn’t close until there was a third case. Who knows whether we were safe?

Ellen Schweitzer: I want to echo something Annie said early on about the rank and file having the idea that nobody’s coming to save us. If there’s one takeaway lesson a lot of people have, that’s it. One of the challenges for MORE is to realize people can take that in one of two directions, or maybe more.

As rank-and-file members, we can start to reach out to each other for solidarity and support, and to move toward the goal of making sure schools are safe.

On the other hand, it can go in the direction of people just withdrawing and isolating and assuming, “Well, there is no social network — not from the DOE, not from the UFT — that I can work with in order to pursue these outcomes. Instead, I’m just going to do what I feel I can do as an individual teacher. I’m just going to hunker down and try to support the students as best as I can.”

It’s also important to keep in mind that those who are working remotely full-time are working more than they usually do. Converting instruction to remote instruction is not just a turnkey operation.

I’ve been very impressed by the number of people who have wanted to come together around MORE, or just as rank-and-file members in schools supporting each other and fighting for safe conditions. I also understand that though a large number of people out there would possibly be more active under other circumstances, people are overwhelmed and burned out.

Once we get back into the buildings safely eventually, not this school year, people won’t forget the experience of being neglected by the DOE and UFT leaderships; MORE can reconnect with those folks.

Shoshana Brown: I want to add two things. One is that I agree about people feeling resigned and powerless, as well as scared in this moment. I happen to be working in a school that is relatively prepared to be flexible and nimble in their programming.

I don’t want to say that they are totally prepared, but they’re flexible enough. However, I know that that is a very, very privileged position to be in; it’s not the majority of school experiences facing teachers across the city.

The school I work in has a number of particular privileges that allow them to have that kind of flexible schedule. For example, my school is a shared campus. Before anyone knew the gravity of the situation, the principals of the building apparently had a conversation and the principal of my school bid for access to the roof.

So we have access to the roof five days a week. When it was warm outside, our in-person students were able to have a number of classes outdoors. There’s a bunch of layers of privilege there!

The frustration for me is knowing this is not the case for the majority. Certain schools, certain principals, and even certain districts are allowed different kinds of leverage for what education looks like today. I know of other districts and schools that are completely micromanaged by the superintendent all the way on down. Teachers can feel strangled in their ability to be creative, which is what this time calls for.

My second point is about how do I, as a school social-worker in a high school, ally myself with K-5 elementary school educators and special-education educators across the city. They are forced to go into unsafe buildings, while I’m not. I’m constantly searching for what it means for me to be a strong ally and activist in this moment.

KW: A year ago, MORE was fewer than 100 members; now we have about 750 members. The vast majority of our membership has joined within the last eight or nine months. However, we’re also up against the largest, probably most sophisticated bureaucratic organization, in the leadership of the United Federation of Teachers that you would find in any union local in the United States. What would you say is our strategy for eventually transforming our union into one that will fight for our rights, especially in pandemic times like these?

SB: That’s a big question — there are a number of prongs that we are using. First and foremost, I think the foundation is critical. We are working to build long lasting, meaningful relationships. Relational organizing is a strategy to build leadership amongst the rank and file. It’s not just relying on people’s membership or commitment or passion about the issue, but building strong relationships with each other.

I would also say that we are working hard to encourage more leadership. We want more activists and members to run for chapter leader and delegate, and we’re putting significant energy and effort into the campaign to develop more leadership amongst the rank-and file-members, building by building and district by district.

Last summer, we did a great job at organizing districts across the city, which is something that hasn’t been done by the UFT. We were able to have people develop relationships, not only within their own school, not only city-wide, but also within their own local districts. That’s important. Building by building and then district by district, building leadership and confidence.

Also, we’re teaching people how to organize. That means teaching how to put together a power analysis, how to strategically plan, how to think long term. That is not something that teachers are taught nor is it something that comes naturally. These are learned skills, including how to phone bank and facilitate meetings.

I think in all of these practical things we are positioning ourselves to be in a more powerful place. That way, when opportunities come up to move the larger UFT in a different direction, we will better placed.

It’s like playing chess. You don’t go for checkmate on the first move. You position yourself and you use long-term strategies. These are some of the things that I’ll say that we’re working on to build leadership.

ES: MORE’s membership grew so quickly because we were giving voice to serious concerns and objections that people had about schools being open during the deadly pandemic. This goes all the way back to March, before the schools were closed.

So many people were really upset that the schools weren’t closing and then of course, upset that there was an aggressive move to reopen them, supposedly safely, even though we know that was garbage.

The UFT leadership was not really articulating objections. Yes, to some extent in March, they did say, “Okay, the school should be closed.” But they weren’t organizing any action to make that happen.

MORE was doing that. MORE was saying, “This is unacceptable. This is terrible. Schools need to be closed now, and here’s the action that we’re going to take to make that happen.” I think people gravitated around MORE because it was the only place where this was being talked about publicly.

As far as the longer-term strategy for transforming the UFT, I think that the biggest distinction between the current UFT leadership and MORE is that we want the rank and file to see how they are contributing to our own victories.

People can experience victory by acting together to win at the workplace. Even if it’s around small issues, that experience of being a part of mobilizing for something with your coworkers is crucial. That’s what makes a union strong and effective.

The current UFT leadership, over the decades, has carefully constructed a service organization of union staffers who do the work, whatever they imagine it to be, on behalf of the rank and file.

In so many ways the rank and file are discouraged from participating in building the union’s power. This has also contributed to the fact that so many people don’t even understand what the union is or their potential role as members. The rank and file are shut out of all kinds of negotiations.

That practice was prominently on display this last year during the pandemic. We were constantly finding out about agreements that UFT President Michael Mulgrew made. The union knew that there would not have been broad rank-and file-support for these had there been a more public discussion.

Even if we examine the UFT’s strike threat, we see there was no attempt to organize the rank and file or encourage them to organize themselves in order to make the threat credible. It was performative. It was to help the UFT leadership in their behind-closed-doors-negotiation technique.

Genuine leadership tries to encourage people to take an active role in their union, starting from the workplaces where they are with their coworkers. That’s one of the reasons why we’re also focusing on building chapter leaders.

One of the reasons we were focused on chapter leader and delegate elections this spring is because that’s one of the few places where it’s possible for dissidents to win election. Those positions are elected by the rank and file in the schools, directly and locally.

City-wide elections for the top leadership are harder to win for various reasons. One reason is that retirees vote and, secondly, slate elections make it more difficult to win those leadership positions.

As a chapter leader, you can transform how the union runs at your workplace by simply having regular meetings. You’d be shocked by how many schools, even ones that have chapter leaders, don’t have meetings on a regular basis. The initial step of having an active chapter needs to be implemented in the majority of schools.

AT: This is my fifth year at my school, and there have only been one or two chapter meetings the whole time. I wanted to add that solidarity across groups is also a defining feature of MORE with our Black Lives Matter schoolwork.

We work with parents’ groups like Alliance for Quality Education. Some have tried to work officially with the UFT, but you can’t work with UFT when it’s so service-based; it’s not democratic at all. The union doesn’t want to hear concerns, period. So it is impossible for the union to work on the ground with other stakeholders.

Because we were able to elevate safety concerns and protest last summer, we were able to delay or stop school openings this fall. Eighty percent of the students are remote right now because of our work with parent and community support, and which the media picked up on. That was a major victory. That made school safer.

The Department of Education didn’t make school safe, by but reducing the number of students and demanding safety protocols we definitely made them safer. It’s those alliances that make MORE unique.

I learned that too from the Chicago Teachers Union that declared, in 2014 when it was not popular yet, Black Lives Matter. The union said it forcefully and encouraged their membership to speak out; it made other unions across the country realize they needed to speak out too.

It’s not just rank-and-file educators who are affected by schools. We say, in MORE, that our students’ learning conditions are educators’ working conditions.

I also think MORE has started to branch out. Shoshana could share about how it’s not just teachers being involved.

The UFT refused to organize and mobilize us, but paraprofessionals and related service providers like speech pathologists, social workers, and other entities that haven’t been as organized in the past are on board. They had a chance with the Janus case not to join us, but they did. [In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public sector workers who choose not to belong to the union do not have to pay a fee when union negotiates or enforces the contract.] Now we have to organize ourselves and have a say.

We’re going to release MORE’s survey report. We asked the rank and file “What are your main concerns?” I believe two of the top three concerns were both the students’ and staffs’ social-emotional needs right now. [This report was released on February 2nd and can be found on the MORE website.]

It’s clear that educators are on the side of students in thinking about all of these issues. That’s made deciding whether we go in-person or stay remote a tough decision. We know there are students who benefit from in-person. But at the end of the day, it’s about keeping us all safe, especially with this crazy COVID variant and people dying.

KW: Now Mike Stivers has joined us. Mike, I want you to join our conversation to lay out our caucus’ strategy. How can we transforming the union given that we are up against a historically large and sophisticated bureaucratic leadership at the top.

Mike Stivers: Sure. I just walked by a school where there’s a hawk on top of the school sign and it’s eating a rat alive. I feel that’s some sort of metaphor for the school system right now.

What’s our caucus’ long-term strategy? I guess some context is necessary. Before I was involved, the caucus was founded almost like a coalition, or an organization of organizations. Around 2016 it was becoming clear that there were serious disagreements about what the caucus should do or what its strategy should be.

By 2018 the conflict came to a head and a bunch of people left. I thought it was an interesting period because there was growing agreement that the caucus should involve itself in social justice struggles. That might not seem  controversial, but it was.

Beyond that, there were still unanswered questions, about whether a dissident caucus should run in elections if we’re only going to get 5-10% of the vote or even 20%. Another problem was figuring out the relationship between building power at individual schools while trying to engage the broadest possible activist layer.

Then in 2020, the shutdown and reopening campaign took off. At the time we were still in the process of cohering a strategy amongst the 30-50 active caucus members.

That task is actually a lot harder now because there are 750 members, with maybe 100-200 active members and a huge range of activity. We have a lot of people new to organizing, but who have stepped into leadership roles. Our biggest challenge is developing a clear strategy that is shared amongst a wide layer of the caucus.

In my opinion I think that we have to accept that we are not going to win leadership of our union in a way that we’ve seen in Chicago, or LA, or Milwaukee, or Baltimore or Boston. None of those cities has the level of bureaucratic leadership we do; they have a very different history.

Our strategy has been to prioritize building at the school site; it has to prioritize a much longer-range strategy. I don’t think we’re going to be able to win a surprise election in the way that CORE did in Chicago.

That’s one aspect of it. It has to look different. When we look to caucuses in these other cities for inspiration, which we should, it’s also important to understand how radically different our circumstances are, not only in the school conditions, but in the nature of the leadership of those unions.

AT: I’d add that it is not because our union leadership is awesome and that’s why we can’t be elected. It’s that retirees can vote.

Also, the size means we would need a vast amount of organizing on the ground. Right now we have about 40 something chapter leaders in MORE. We’re aiming for 100 this school year with chapter leader and delegate elections coming up, but that is nowhere near the infrastructure needed to win a city-wide election.

It will not be possible within the next few years to win the leadership of the local. That’s a long game.

I encourage people to see that’s not happening next year, and it’s not likely going to happen in five or 10 years honestly. It’s a long game on the ground of organizing and empowering our membership and helping them feel powerful. That’s really what our organization is about, democratizing our union in a way that matters for ourselves, our students and our families.

Additionally in the UFT, there is a link to the Democratic Party and to the AFT that makes us feel there’s a huge incentive for our union nationally to be the way it is. It is not just that our union is super powerful but it’s political machinations that make it this way.

That doesn’t exist for any other union. I was an AFT delegate at the 2016 AFT convention in Chicago. New York City had 750 delegates and outvoted us every single time. While LA, the second largest district, split their votes, Chicago, the third largest, had 150 delegates — only a fifth of New York’s. Even if all the other little locals came together, no one could outvote New York City, unfortunately. There is an incentive for larger powers that be to keep our union the way it is.

SB: I’m really glad Mike brought in the historical aspect along with Annie’s reality check, I think that’s really important. I want to add that MORE is a social justice dissident caucus. It’s critical to name the role that racism plays in the union.

Historically the UFT has been extremely racist. It is especially important to understand the reactionary role the union played in Brownsville, Brooklyn in 1968 when the community demanded control over the schools, and the UFT went out on strike in opposition.

The fact that we take an anti-racist stance and push for social justice and Black Lives Matter in schools is part of what makes this an uphill battle. I think we’d be remiss not to name it as such. This is institutional and historical racism at play.

That same mechanism plays out for workers’ rights inside the UFT. While the UFT is the United Federation of Teachers, and the teachers are the majority of the union, the other professionals and staff represented don’t get the same level of support. And surprise, surprise, these are the jobs people of color have. I think that racism plays a huge role in the way the union resources are distributed.

AT: Especially since our union is, majority white. That means MORE is mostly white as well. That definitely plays a role within the caucus work. The fact that we have educators of color within our caucus is good, but we definitely need to build on this.

Shoshana and I are from New York City and are people of color.  We still need to prioritize recruiting and training people of color in the caucus, and support their work.

SB: It’s no surprise that a lot of the teachers of color are often burnt out. When as another person of color, I call on them, “Hey, can you step up?” here’s this opportunity, but folks are tired. It’s about the opportunities available, it’s about the way that we’re treated in the workplace that compounds the burnout and hardship.

MS: A lot of people come to MORE out of an understanding about social and educational issues. What’s most visible to people is that the UFT takes terrible positions, right?

They are in favor of mayoral control over the schools. Until this year, the leadership opposed the Black Lives Matter resolution every single year. There are so many good reasons for people to be angry at them all the time.

When we talk about the leadership, sometimes it gets couched as if they have bad political positions, and ours are the right ones and this is what the leadership should be doing. While those criticisms are basically true, one of the two or three most important distinctions between MORE and the current leadership is that we want member democracy. We think a union should be led by its membership, and controlled by its members.

They pretend to think that, but they don’t even try very hard. The rhetoric, just like Annie was saying, is that “We know how to do things. We’re acting in your best interest; we’ve got this under control.”

Really, anytime that there’s a dissident resolution brought from a MORE member at a delegate assembly, this is exactly what they say, “We were elected to represent you. Let us do our job.” Anytime we’re advocating for a referendum amongst the entire membership they say “Well, the delegates were elected to do this.”

It’s so important to keep hitting home that the Department of Education is not a great place for people who work in it and the students who attend it. And the UFT is not powerful, because the members aren’t empowered. The UFT has to be that way in order to keep control, but the cost of locking down the membership is that you can’t then activate members to win fights. Who controls the union and what it’s for is just as important.

AT: How do we build a caucus where all members have access? What are the different points of access?

We’re still not great at drawing people in, but we’re trying to improve. In order for members to feel valued and heard, and able to participle fully, we need an organizing culture.

KW: I want to thank everybody very much for participating in this discussion.

March-April 2021, ATC 211

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