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New kind of opposition in UFT?

By Herman Benson

When members of the United Federation of Teachers in New York vote for officers in April, the local’s administration will have to deal with an opposition ticket. But that’s nothing new in the UFT. From its very beginning, ever since the union was founded some fifty years ago, the administration’s Unity Caucus has firmly held sway, first under Al Shanker as president, then Sandy Feldman, then Randy Weingarten, and now Michael Mulgrew. In all this time, oppositions have come and gone, sometimes more than one at a time. And in all this time, the Unity Caucus administration has shrugged off opposition as it won reelection, easily, overwhelmingly — and calmly.

But this time, there could be something new.

After Francesco Portelos announced his candidacy for UFT president at the head of his Solidarity Caucus and made campaign calls to nurses at their hospital — the UFT represents some nurses — nervous supporters of the administration got panicky. They denounced him for endangering the welfare of patients by phoning nurses at their jobs. Portelos was ordered to appear before a UFT committee for a formal “investigation.” Infected by that same unusual ominous mood, Portelos called for a defense against what he feared was an attempt to expel him. For the first and only time in fifty years of unions elections the union’s disciplinary machinery seemed poised to cut down an opposition candidacy.

But someone in authority at the UFT seems to have retained a wise sense of proportion. The “investigation” was abruptly called off; crisis was averted.

When Portelos first announced, he didn’t seem to have much of an operation. To fill out a slate, his website called for volunteers to propose themselves candidates. He did have a formidable campaign website, dealing with almost anything of concern to members; it was so varied, so inclusive that it seems to require full time attention. He has a knack for touching every sensitive nerve.
Apart from the arresting quality of Portelos’s website, however, the UFT administration faces a new kind of challenge. In the past, all the opposition critics clearly came from the left. Calling for a turn toward social justice, they criticized the UFT’s mainstream labor policies which tied it mainly to the Democratic Party. The UFT easily parried the criticism by standing on its service to teachers.

Portelos, however, devotes no time or space to complex social issues. He focuses with determination on what bothers UFT members. And in these tough times,when they and their unions are under attack from all directions, teachers are burdened with troubles. Portelos addresses all those troubles. He doesn’t merely mention them. He underlines them; explains them and repeats; he says teachers are right to protest; he says he is on their side; he demands recourse. There seems to be no end to vexing issues and they are all in his platform:

Reduce class size; reform evaluations by removing test scores; protect tenure and pensions; don’t close schools; value experience and don’t discriminate against those with higher salaries; do something about that “boiler room” where unassigned teachers are warehoused; protect nurses and para-professionals; stop bullying union activists; get rid of administrators who violate the contract; support untenured teachers, smaller schools, and stronger union chapters; elect district union reps; enact better maternity leave; better compensation for chapter leaders and delegates. Some of this may confuse outside readers, but teachers will understand.

It’s a big list, a bulging hope chest. No one can expect any union leadership to find a ready solution to all these difficult problems. Nor any opposition. But Portelos sounds the alarm, pulls the bell ropes, rings the changes. He offers UFT members a means of relieving their frustrations, of expressing their resentment against attacks. How dissatisfied are teachers in New York? A hint of the answer will come after votes are counted in April.

No one expects the union to satisfy them all. No one surely expects to find solution to all from Portelos.

But he gives voice to all. He offers opportunity for voters to express their frustration and resentments and a way to demand attention from the leadership. It will be interesting to see how many will take the opportunity to send this message to the leadership by their vote in this election.