The United Federation of Teachers leadership’s support for mayoral control today follows from the Unity Caucus’ longstanding opposition to community control and affirmative action, which dates from the late 1960’s and the 1968 strikes in particular but which of course has much deeper roots in US history. Support for the mayoral dictatorship follows a 30-year effort by the UFT to control community school boards and defuse and discredit Black and Latino teacher, parent and community leaders who do not accept UFT leadership.
A positive alternative to the current leadership’s continued support for mayoral control is in the immediate self interest of the large majority of active union members, the large majority of students, parents, and the working class people of New York City.
The flight from unity with communities of color is a flight from working class solidarity in search of a seat at the table with white oligarchs. An accommodation to systemic white supremacy is the central defining feature of UFT history since the late 1960’s. It follows that anyone seeking to make a fundamental change in the UFT must place the struggle against white supremacy and racial privileges as a central and core concern, reflected in its organizing, literature, program, strategy and tactics.
In the past, the UFT leadership’s negative view of community control and affirmative action was shared by the majority of the overwhelmingly white membership, including many activists who considered themselves to be critical of the Unity Caucus on other issues. A wide array of issues, apart from the central defining feature of the UFT’s accommodation with systemic white supremacy, constituted the body and range of issues to be considered as the basis of opposition caucuses and groups. These included such issues as Unity’s red baiting and anti-communism, Unity’s collaboration with the Banks during the 1975 fiscal crisis, their sellouts, tradeoffs and givebacks at the bargaining table, excessive staff salaries and benefits, lack of internal union democracy, support for corporate sponsored education “reforms,” such as high stakes testing, small schools, “value added” teacher accountability systems, national curriculum, charter schools, merit pay, mayoral control, etc, and the UFT’s support for the Israeli occupation and settlement of the West Bank and US imperialism from the Vietnam War down to the invasion of Iraq.
Conspicuously missing from the discussion of possible points of unity have been challenges to the system of white racial privileges from which systemic white supremacy draws its support from a diverse class base in the European American population. It is the responsibility of leading opposition activists to raise their own awareness on this matter and it will not due to abdicate a leadership responsibility on this by reference to any alleged backward thinking among their fellow teachers.
The system of white racial privileges is a vulnerable point of social control for it depends on the acquiescence, the passive and active support of European American workers in their own subjugation to the interests of the 1%. This is quite apparent in NYC where effective resistance to the mayoral dictatorship and local oligarchy requires an enlightened view of solidarity; a view that a white racial privilege accorded the European American working person is not a benefit, but a form of social control intended to limit and preempt the growth of a people’s movement to overturn the mayoral dictatorship.
When schools are closed in the Black and Latino communities, and public space handed over for a pittance to the hedge fund charters that displace teachers of color disproportionately, and replace them with non-union young whites that pass through teaching like a stint in the Peace Corps, this is the privilege system at work. When the Black and Latino teachers are disappeared from the city’s public schools at an alarming rate and so call radicals stand mute, this is the privilege system at work. When the largest union local in the USA has zero to say about stop and frisk and the high rates of racial incarceration and its impact on NYC students and families, yet the legislative priorities of the UFT garner scant attention from the opposition as well, this is the privilege system at work. It is a system that engenders indifference and blindness and hopelessness, the polar opposites of solidarity and resistance. Within the UFT the central strategic issue on which an alternative direction can develop has been largely omitted from most of the opposition’s program for many years due to the mistaken correlation of privileges with benefits.
Oppressive learning and working conditions combined with increased opposition to school closings and charter push-ins based in the Black and Latino communities has awakened awareness and hope that the historic blindness and denial regarding the defining central strategic character of the UFT’s opportunism may be at an end.
It has been until now quite possible to be a critic of the Unity Caucus on a host of issues yet at the same time continue to think and act “white” and remain hopelessly disconnected from the working class in NYC which is majority Latino, Black and Asian. What emerged in the past from this willful blindness is a largely sterile ‘white’ opposition in the UFT, a dissenting faction with no legs and no alternative viable strategy to defend learning and working conditions, public sector unionism and indeed the public sector itself as a bulwark against corporate greed. I do not think this historic blindspot is corrected by inclusion of the phrase “social justice” or “anti racist unionism,” or the inclusion of persons of color on a slate of candidates. The language must pose specific demands for the eradication of specific white racial privileges in the hiring, firing of staff, the allocation of resources and for the democratic control of the schools by through a new enlightened sense of self interested collaboration between the communities served and the school based staff.
A strategic alternative begins with a revolution in UFT history; an acknowledgement that the 40-year search for partnership with white political and economic elites for the proverbial “seat at the table” is the problem not the solution.
The UFT has lost its “seat” at the table but it was a seat secured in large part through its anti communism, support for US imperialism, opposition to the community control struggle in 1968, opposition to affirmative action (former President Albert Shanker emerged as a national leader on this in his support of Bakke), collaboration with the Bankers coup during the NYC fiscal crisis in 1975, support for corporate sponsored educational reform and mayoral control over large urban school systems with a majority of Black Latino and Asian students. This was a “seat” gained through one betrayal after another. At some point who is left to sell out? This is the question that senior teachers, the traditional base of support for the UFT leadership must face. Their jobs and pensions are one of the few remaining cards left in the UFT’s hand to trade off on and therefore most in danger, yet they are also the most connected to the UFT leadership legacy of white supremacist opportunism. They therefore have a strong and compelling immediate self-interest to repudiate this legacy and the UFT’s historic antipathy to community control.
The rationale for decades of trade offs, givebacks, and betrayals is always that “it could have been worse” and “we did the best we could.” The alternative to capitulation and triangulation is a mass based resistance that shifts the balance in the favor of the people. The UFT’s historic opportunism and dogged defense of its legacy leaves them stuck in their own quagmire even while individual leaders may privately admit the inadequate defensive posture which the union currently finds itself in. It is here that an opposition may play a legitimate and positive role by speaking the unspeakable, breaking ranks with a self-defeating white supremacist legacy. In short to show how and why it is in the immediate self-interest of the large majority of the membership to stop acting “white” and join in a people’s movement to end the mayoral dictatorship and create a credible defense against attacks from the white oligarchy.
Sean Ahern is a NYC public school teacher and parent and he is active with the Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen Society