At one point in my career I made the huge mistake of being the chapter leader of my building. Really, only two types of people become chapter leaders and I am neither. The first is the snitch who sees the position as a way to get comfy with the administration, informing on their colleagues in hopes of securing their own jobs or getting cushy schedules for themselves. The other is the type with the patience to suffer fools (in adult form anyway) and can therefore cut through the din in order to do what they think is right for the chapter. Those chapter leaders are surely better people than I. The biggest fools I had to suffer during my brief stint as chapter leader were not in the teachers’ lounge or the principal’s office. Instead, they were sitting in the United Federation of Teachers office at 52 Broadway.
The building itself is a magnificent structure located in the financial district, not far from Wall Street and Zuccotti Park. The 10th floor is operated by the dues taken out of every NYC public school teacher’s paycheck. It would be here that I would go for the district meetings where there was always an ample spread of pretty good food. I would think for a second that the union actually cares about me, that is until the meeting starts. In short, the meetings go something like this:
Chapter leader from the High School of [Insert fancy BS Bloomberg name here]: “My principal is requiring everyone to work longer hours for free.”
Chapter leader from the High School of Global Research into Something Important-Sounding: “My principal is conducting witch hunts against veteran teachers.”
Chapter Leader from the Academy of Sounds Like a Rich People School: “My principal is going after my license.”
District Rep: “Yeah, good luck with all that. Meeting Adjourned! Oh yeah, be sure to show up to the next ineffectual protest filled with blowhard speeches by union brass who have not won a single right for you in 35 years. If you don’t show up, you’re a piece of crap parasite who doesn’t give back to the union that protects you. “
After a while I started to realize that the union had no answers for any of the problems brought up by any of those chapter leaders. They had no answers for me either. When one of my teachers, who is a wonderful and hard-working educator, was facing frivolous 3020a charges (the hearings at which teachers face termination), all of the higher ups at the UFT either didn’t pick up the phone or return a message or provide any guidance or encouragement at all. It was as if I was bothering them with my silly questions about how to save a member’s career. Then within a month, another one of my teachers who is also a wonderful and hard-working educator was brought up on even more frivolous 3020a charges. This time, the UFT response was “well, the teacher should not have done that”, the “that” being nothing more than an expression of free speech on private time. The sad thing is that I do not believe the people at the UFT are malicious or mean. Some of them might be but the vast majority are mossbacks who have been in their positions for so long that they are corroded with privileged, bureaucratic rust. They simply forgot what it meant to be a teacher and the rights and protections that teachers need to be professionals. Don’t they use the AFT slogan, “a union of professionals”? It is one of the more absurd forms of double-speak.
But the last straw came the summer after that harrowing school year had ended. I was trying to forget about all the union incompetence and teacher abuse I had witnessed. I started getting missed calls on my cell phone from strange numbers. Only when I played my messages did I find it was the UFT. It wasn’t the usual UFT phone call which was usually a pre-recorded message from Michael Mulgrew, our glorious union president, telling me how to vote at the next delegate assembly. (Where all the “big” union decisions are made, of course). No, this time they added an actual personal touch by sending a real live human to call me. But they did not call to tell me what to think and they damn sure didn’t call to inform me how to help my chapter in any meaningful way. It seems they wanted to make a plaque for the teachers at my school who worked there during the tragedy of 9/11. They called me again and again and then again. They were relentless. They needed to make this plaque and they needed me to help them do it. After the 7th or 8th phone call I felt bile in my throat. I was not against the plaque, I was just thinking of all the union dues I have paid throughout my years of service. I was thinking about all the times I was ignored and dismissed by the UFT when people’s careers were on the line. And now here they are, beating down my door to make a plaque. After that I could never bring myself to represent the UFT in any meaningful way. All of my union dues were apparently only worth a plaque.
The UFT eventually got their plaque, but it came at the expense of one more disillusioned teacher.