From the Frustration & Chaos a New UFT Group Emerges

There are roughly 200,000 members in the United Federation of Teachers. If you were to ask those members what a “caucus” in their union is, I bet 90% would not know or not be able to name them. I know I certainly didn’t just three years ago. In fact, not only did I not know what a UFT caucus was, but I didn’t know what a District Rep and Borough Rep was and I routinely missed UFT meetings in my school entirely.

“Am I going to the union meeting? You mean that where everyone complains about the administration early Friday morning? No thanks. I’m going to sleep in a little later. Besides,  I’m a great teacher and the administration loves me. The union can keep taking care of my dental and medicine. That’s what the union can do for me.” –A very naive Francesco Portelos circa February 2011

I first learned about caucuses in March 2012, after I was targeted and when Edu-blogger activist Norm Scott of ednotesonline.com first heard of my story. We started speaking about it at a robotics competition. His question was something like “Is Chapter Leader Rich Candia, who threw you under the bus, from Unity caucus?” I had no idea and I was the chapter delegate at the time. I later found he was Unity even though he ran on the New Action Caucus slate in the 2010 elections.

<PAUSE!> At this point the 90% of readers, not involved in union politics, might be asking “Unity? New Action? What is Francesco talking about?

Well, it turns out that the United Federation of Teachers is not as united as it should be. It is comprised of several caucuses, but most of the members are independents, with no caucus affiliation.

Caucus Definition: a group of people with shared concerns within a political party or larger organization.

Now you would think that we should all have the same “shared concerns,” so there should be no need for internal factions or caucuses. That’s what I thought, but apparently that is now how the world works. Egos and ideology play a major role here.

Since then I learned that Unity caucus (Mulgrew/Weingarten) runs the UFT and several other caucuses have unsuccessfully attempted to usurp Unity’s 50 year control.  At some point there was a riff and members of New Action decided to back Unity’s Weingarten and Mulgrew even though there were major givebacks and attacks on our members. From that riff other caucuses and groups formed, such as ICE, the Independent Community of Educators.

Against the recommendation of some of its founders, ICE later form a new caucus in 2012. The new caucus was called MORE.

Are you following with all the acronyms?

In May 2012 I attended a meeting at a coffee shop with some members of this new caucus called MORE or the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators. MORE is the group I joined after I was aware of the politics and the fight for public education. Again, things I didn’t know existed before. As I sat in the rubber room then I researched and even emailed New Action, but never received a response. You’ll come to find that New Action is actually pretty bad when it comes to technology.

While a member of MORE I decided to run for chapter leader of my school even though I was exiled and banished to a basement two boroughs away.

I wound up winning the election.

Exiled teacher elected to be union chapter chair – Staten Island Advance

Rubber-room teacher voted in as union rep – NY Post

Not bad for a guy who couldn’t care less about the UFT a year before. I also wound up surviving several recall attempts through the next two years of educator exile. Thus my new passion emerged..unionism. I have never looked back since then. Moving forward.

Since 2012 I was very active in helping build and spread MORE, especially since my Unity caucus lead union had continued to leave me for dead and to rot in the rubber room. My activism within MORE fluctuated as I continued to be attacked and had hearings and was arrested blah blah blah…. you know the story. As I watched and helped MORE grow I also spoke to New Action caucus here and there thinking that bipartisan coalitions were the way to go. Jonathan Halabi, Mike Shulman and Greg Distefano attempted to intervene and assist me. I spoke at the UFT Executive Board and New Action told me they tried to follow-up with the leadership. New Action had asked about rallying outside my school whereas MORE members told me Staten Island is “too far.” I thanked them for trying as I continued to be left for dead by the UFT.

The issue that MORE and ICE members had  with New Action is that although they say that are very critical of Unity, since the union has been going down hill, when it comes to elections they endorse Michael Mulgrew and other Unity leaders. I can see where this is a problem and can also see where this is a strategic political move for New Action to acquire executive board seats. Strong critics of New Action should rent House of Cards from Netflix.

The UFT has a governing body that has about 82 members. That is the Executive Board of the UFT. Unity caucus holds about 83 seats and New Action holds 8. How many seats does MORE hold? MORE actually holds zero seats on the board despite some large votes in the last election and a lot of attempts at organizing.

Back to MORE and I.

As I continued to increase my fight back and hone in on skills and methods I was acquiring to do so, I continued to share and learn with MORE. I was active on several of their email groups, ran on their slate for middle school executive board seats in 2013 and the NYS United Teachers election in 2014. My online Dropbox file storage has a folder called MORE that is chock full of documents, videos and pictures I helped work on to promote MORE.

What was I really promoting though? What was MORE?

There was something missing from the movementMORE continued to grow in Twitter followers, Facebook “likes” and email subscribers, but so what? What was that doing for the member who needed help and was left for dead by the UFT? There is a very large void of representation left by the UFT and MORE was not really filling it. My email box was full of educators asking for help and in almost each one they wrote “the union has not helped.” As far as social justice issues, that is a different story. MORE works hard on those issues. MORE calls themselves “The social justice caucus of the UFT“, but what is social justice?

Social Justice is defined as “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.

So this growing group continued to focus mostly on social justice, but what about Tenured Teacher A, B, C, ATR J and Probationary Teacher K? What about Teacher Q who spends hours on lesson plan templates she doesn’t agree with and doesn’t have the required curriculum for? MORE wasn’t and still does not fight for the UFT member in trouble.

I decided to run for the steering committee of MORE in the fall of 2013. The steering committee is a group that is elected to make quick decisions for the caucus that would require too much time to get a vote from the larger membership. It turns out there was no real election that took place for steering as all members who were nominated got in.

I joined the “steering” committee to literally try to “steer” the caucus in a direction that better served the UFT members. I found that it was like pulling a boulder with shoelaces. They just would not budge.

I’m going to summarize what I experienced that caused concern for me :

  • MORE members, like Peter Zucker, would start calling me telling me “We need to create our own caucus.” or “They are not in touch with the day to day plight of the average educator and too distracted with social justice. We are a trade union.” I ignored these comments for over a year and thought they can be steered back to the members here.
  • I would propose things like Educator Defense (DTOE.org) to steering and it would get tabled at meetings to instead be replaced with agenda items like “Teaching members about caucus history.”
  • I would raise concerns about upcoming chapter leader elections and general elections two years away and that would get tabled as well.
  • In March 2014 I was on steering and a MORE candidate for the New York State United Teachers election. That month I was also falsely arrested by the NYPD based on false claims by the NYC DOE. After a few days of not hearing my “social justice caucus” make a peep over my wrongful imprisonment by our employer I sent this email out:

    Subject: MORE and Social Justice?
    To: MORE <more-discussion@googlegroups.com>

    I’m concerned about MORE. That’s why I got on the steering committee.

    A member of MORE….a steering committee member…a NYSUT candidate was falsely accused and imprisoned and the Social Justice caucus he belongs to is silent? Not a tweet…not a discussion….not a mobilizing of anything?

    I know some bloggers wrote, but what is MORE really? Just talk…no walk?

    This isn’t about me…this is bigger.

    DOE’s Workplace Bullying Continues – My 33 Hrs Behind Bars – http://wp.me/p31ecs-Tm

    Francesco Portelos

  • Then there was some discussion and apologies and we found that another teacher was wrongfully arrested the week before at the same 84th precinct. MORE then called for a resolution to defend members against abusive administrators. It was voted down by Unity and that was that. MORE also didn’t want to name abusive administrators on their website and nothing about it was ever mentioned again.
  • I continued to build my other group, Don’t Tread on Educators (DTOE.org), to defend educators under attack since UFT and MORE were not doing enough in that aspect. I and other MORE members spoke about not really sending attacked members to MORE meetings, because we weren’t convinced that it would get them anywhere. MORE has a low retention rate and although they might get 60 people to a meeting, it isn’t the same as before. Several UFT members told me they “…will never waste time at another MORE meeting again.” Edu-blogger Arthur Goldstein shared the same sentiments here in his blog post NYC Educator: MORE and the Mission from God
  • We continued to try to steer MORE in a direction many of us believed was needed. It was tough and they were not budging. Social Justice First and nothing else.
  • In May 2014 they were very involved in criticizing the new proposed contract. I joined in that as did many others. I tried to create a forum for all issues on the contract called www.uftcontract.com. I gave it the MORE logo and it was approved by steering in a democratic way, but undemocratically vetoed by a non steering member Mike Shirtzer. No one said a word about the veto. What do the MORE bylaws say about that? Wait, it was two years and MORE had no governing bylaws? Mike Shirtzer could ignore the whole steering committee? You call this organizing?
  • In June steering was up for reelection and despite a busy schedule I decided to take another crack and getting MORE to defend and represent the membership. Again, no election was had. Not enough were interested.
  • As my name continued to be spread in a synonymous way to fighting back, the emails from members coming in increased. Many non-tenured teachers, who were discontinued and terminated, were contacting me and I tried to help. I saw that New Action also had this issue on their agenda whereas MORE did not. I reached out to New Action caucus to try for a bipartisan push to the DOE and UFT and possibly help these over 600 terminated teachers. The reaction from some MORE members was ridiculous. You would think I threw a burlap sack of kittens into the river.Julie Cavanaugh responded: “Our caucus, our members, have made it very clear their feelings and policy about collaborating with NAC [New Action Caucus]. This was an official outcome after the last meeting with them, discussed at general and sent to discussion where several folks weighed in.“Norm echoed the others’ sentiments with: “I am very disturbed that you took it upon yourself to take this action. It is one thing as an individual – but when you are part of steering you give up some of that individuality as a MORE official. Thus you have no right to take unilateral action and reach out to New Action as a MORE rep (and as a member of Steering that makes you a MORE rep). I think you cause a good deal of harm in doing that. That is counter to basic MORE policy and to decisions we have made to not reach out to New Action- in essence undoing a lot of work we have done to isolate NA. In essence you allow them to use that against us in the elections next year. We have gone through the political scenario numerous times. 
  • I was really blown away but these responses. Reaching out for support on a common cause was frowned upon by MORE. I researched the meeting Julie wrote about. Basically MORE and New Action met in October 2013 to discuss possibly working together. Julie shared her notes from the meeting with the MORE membership and a few chimed in to say in sum and substance “forget New Action.” That was that. No vote and no more discussion.
  • This crazy “What was I thinking?” outreach to New Action caused a behind the scenes discussion by non steering members and a phone call to me that invited me for a “chat” this past August. The chat was supposed to be about me constantly bringing up working with New Action, yet the steering members were unaware of said “issue.” Then who was? Who is that select group in MORE that makes decisions and vetoes the steering committee?
  • This chat request overlapped with the Al Sharpton March for Justice in Staten Island against police brutality. Being on MORE’s steering I can tell you that in a two week period there was a lot of discussion about endorsing or not endorsing this and posting articles by Julie on our MORE blog. Between August 16 to present day, there was more discussion on the March for Justice than there was on teacher trade union issues combined in the last two years. Again, please comment below if I’m wrong.
  • I was outnumbered on steering and the articles went out. This despite extreme chaos on the UFT Facebook page where members were against a union endorsement. My own personal stance revolved around the basic principle of “Hey! Let’s march for teachers and school communities first before we march against police brutality.” I thought that since it was a heated topic, it was best for MORE to quietly sit this one out. How could they though? It was a social justice issue and they jumped in. The outcome was that MORE was too left for the right and not left enough for the left. MORE won nothing or at the minimum very little new support.
  • I became so aggravated that my last weeks of summer vacation were being involved in phone conferences about the March for Justice and countless emails, that I decided to step down from MORE steering.
  • The straw that broke the camel’s back came from Harris Lirtzman, a MORE member and largest donor, and his email to a select few asking that the issue of me speaking against UFT involvement in the March on Facebook be curbed. In addition, I was forwarded a text by someone that was from Harris stating “He [Portelos] is nothing but trouble for the caucus and is about self promotion.” Let me be VERY clear that I am still in this game for whoever needs my help. I have proven time and time again that I will defend myself against any and all attacks and any self promotion is really for promoting that spirit of fighting back.
  • The chat? The chat never happened as it appeared useless. I then resigned from steering.
  • In September, New Action had a press conference for discontinued teachers. DTOE.org members were there and a few MORE members, but MORE chose not to promote the event. Remember, it was a good cause, but again it was from New Action, so MORE was not going to promote their event.

There is more, but basically that is where I, and others, started really discussing moving on. We even briefly discussed talking to New Action, but again that Unity endorsement would be a problem for many.

Now coincidentally, around this time, I was asked to go to lunch with Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, the end of August. I am going to write the word COINCIDENTALLY again in bold, capital letters and italicize it. This is because I have integrity and I assure you that it was just…coincidental timing. My decision to step away from MORE had nothing to do with a conversation with Randi, an avocado toast and a cappuccino on Lexington Ave with the president of the largest union in the United States. By the time we met I had already stepped down.

Sharing the details of my meeting with Randi is not necessary. We had lunch, we spoke about different issues, I explained my criticisms of the union and backed them up with evidence. I called Norm Scott, who she is not a big fan of, my godfather who when all others left me for dead, he pulled me in to teacher activism. Her assistant came in to tell her to check her email as there was an emergency. She pulled out a flip phone and I cracked a joke about it. Since Randi is also part of the Unity caucus, our lunch has caused some speculation, but sharing private conversations doesn’t make me great lunch company.

Now what?

We have a UFT membership frustrated with its UFT leadership. A membership that feels sold out and unprotected.  One needs to go no further than the UFT Facebook page and read the thousands of comments to see that the members are pretty upset. https://www.facebook.com/uftny

We have members in need with no strong enough caucus to support them. Why aren’t more ICE members active in MORE. Why aren’t there more Badass Teachers in MORE? Why aren’t there more minorities in MORE? What about many NYC edu-bloggers? Out there we have countless teacher activists with no real home. We have young members of Unity frustrated with their obligatory voting on agenda’s that are against the membership’s best interest.

Can we create a place for all of them?

I personally have a school system that doesn’t want me and continues to make attempts to attack me. I have a UFT leadership that left me for dead and won’t accept my resume for any job at the union despite my fearless and creative ways to fight back. I had a caucus that ignored me and whose concerns did not echo mine nor that of the rest of the membership.

So, taking all this in and assessing the situation, I spoke to a growing number and we created a new caucus. If the UFT won’t lower the draw bridge to 52 Broadway then we are going to build a tunnel. We are mobilizing and we are growing since just this past Thursday.

If you build it, they will come.

If you lead, they will follow.

No longer can we sit by as educators are blamed for all of societies problems and are systematically attacked. No longer can we sit by as UFT member after UFT member continues to go home unhappy with the dignity and respect sucked out of their work environment. We CAN work together to improve our profession in solidarity.

We present:

Full Solidarity Caucus Logo

 

Visit our website and sign up or fill out the form below. We are looking for both active members and retirees that can bring in their experience and support . We are also looking for non-activist members who are looking for support. We will be here for you.

www.UFTSolidarity.org

Twitter: @UFTSolidarity

Facebook: Facebook.com/UFTSolidarity

I wish MORE caucus success in all their endeavors and will work more with them when it aligns more with teacher centered unionism and when they need people for any overlapping social justice issues. Solidarity Caucus will not be void of social justice issues that affect our students, but our profession will be our primary concern.

UFT Solidarity - "Building a Stronger Union."
Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mrportelos

About Francesco Portelos

Parent and Educator fighting for the student and the teacher.
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2 Comments

  1. You provide every minute detail of every damn thing that’s happened to you during the past 2-3 years but you don’t want to share any details from your discussion with AFT President and reason for so much union member discontent, Randi Weingarten?? Come on Francesco, you’re kidding right? Until I know what was discussed and what role Randi had in the creation of this new caucus I don’t want any part of it.

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