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NYSUT’s Teachable Moment

New York State United Teachers members have an opportunity to create a broad educational justice movement — if they can move their union away from politics as usual.

This weekend, public school teachers from across the state of New York will descend on the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan for the annual Representative Assembly of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the state-level teachers’ union federation. Representing 600,000 teachers from 1,200 locals, the assembly will vote to elect the federation’s leadership, the liaison between the classrooms and the statehouse.

Since their last meeting, popular opposition to the increased use of standardized testing has heightened, with delays on the implementation of the Common Core, a growing opt-out movement, and a federation vote of no-confidence in the state education commissioner. Finding their school districts squeezed by a municipal tax cap, and their children bombarded with what they consider to be uselessly stressful standardized tests, a vocal contingent of teachers and parents has emerged to oppose state education policy in New York.

This represents an opportunity for teachers’ unions, but whether they will be able to fold broad opposition to standardized testing into a positive alternative to competitive funding schemes will depend on breaking with labor’s established political strategy in Albany. If teachers’ unions hope to reverse competition-based reforms, they will have to move past merely opposing policy. They will have advance an alternative to the ruling consensus that refuses to redistribute the tax burden upwards to adequately fund public education.

As this weekend’s NYSUT election shows, the impetus for such a break will have to come from the membership. Unless New York teachers contest for power within their unions, the existing union leadership will continue to leverage unorganized discontent to build power for business-oriented Democrats who have little intention of reclaiming the promise of public schooling.

The election in question is between President Richard Iannuzzi and Executive Vice President Anthony Pallotta. It is a palace coup, a familiar transition in American unions: Pallotta is the federation’s Director of Political and Legislative Action — he controls the union’s $8 million campaign fund — and is running to “revive [the federation] and the labor movement.” He has the support of Michael Mulgrew, the president of the New York City AFT local, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and with democratic brio, Pallotta’s campaign exhorts members to “Be the Union.”

It is a strategy calculated to turn rank-and-file frustration into support. But given his political record, it is unclear whether this slogan is much more than shrewd campaign rhetoric.

Take, for example, Pallotta’s support of State Senate Majority Co-Leader Jeffrey Klein. In 2012, Klein led five dissident Democrats to form a ruling coalition in the Senate with the minority Republican Party. When the Senate debated a minimum wage increase five months after the split, it was Klein’s Independent Democratic Committee that gave Republicans the majority that kept the increase so low, left out tipped workers, subsidized the increased labor costs for businesses, and refused to index the minimum wage to future inflation.

In the midst of this rightward shift, NYSUT, under Pallotta’s direction, was able to find $5,000 to donate to Klein’s re-election campaign — a small but purposeful sum.

As holder of the political purse, Pallotta has also spearheaded the effort to re-elect Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to whom NYSUT has already donated $10,000 for his 2014 campaign. Across the state, Cuomo has appealed to Republican lawmakers for support on the grounds of his fiscal conservatism.

“We [cut] income tax last year,” he recently bragged to Crain’s. “[T]his year I want to do corporate taxes.”

When he officially launched his campaign in New York City this January, the gala was hosted by such brass hats as hedge fund manager and subprime mortgage trader John Paulson and Cablevision CEO James Dolan.

Before this year, Cuomo’s wing of the state Democratic Party had cut education funding for half a decade while imposing costly testing programs on public schools, much to the chagrin of the exurban district leaders who must rely on the very property taxes he has capped. His censure also stands in the way of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans for raising taxes on residents making over $500,000 a year, and for establishing a citywide minimum wage.

One might assume these positions would cause labor leaders to distance themselves from the governor. Yet NYSUT’s political fund has committed itself financially to Cuomo’s re-election, as well as to Republican leaders like Senate Majority Co-Leader Dean Skelos, head of the Republican caucus, and Senator John Bonacic — both of whom, to cite an example of their positions on labor, voted against New York’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Mirroring NYSUT’s direction, the UFT leadership in New York City decided in January to reject a proposal to neither endorse nor fund Cuomo’s re-election campaign.

What could explain this disconnect between the actions of union leadership and the interests of New York workers?

One explanation is that the patronage politics of the New York City local — the strongest faction within the federation, with 800 of its 2,000 delegate votes, and the union from which Pallotta himself hails — sacrifices broad working-class interests in exchange for regional favoritism. This is a version of the strategy Kim Moody has referred to as “the politics of the deal,” but it is predated by the spoils system of late nineteenth and early twentieth century political machines, which traded municipal contracts for workers’ votes. In either case, a principled project of progressive reform is sacrificed for institutional stability.

Such votes — or, nowadays, campaign contributions — may have motivated right-leaning Democrats to loosen up a bit when it comes to satisfying select constituencies in the city. For example, in September 2013, Sen. Klein gave $700,000 to Mulgrew to locate community services in some New York City public schools. The Senate Majority Co-Leader opposes a $9 minimum wage before 2016, but gets the backing of organized labor because he supports public services for a few schools in New York City. Likewise, it was Gov. Cuomo who intervened last winter when the Bloomberg administration, refusing to negotiate with UFT Pres. Mulgrew, lost New York City schools $250 million in state aid.

Herein lies the crux of the UFT’s political strategy: it has found that it can get by on trading favors without throwing its weight around independently of the party leaders’ position. This might have made sense during the beleaguered Bloomberg years, but today it is limiting the labor movement of which the union is ostensibly a part.

Parents’ mounting opposition to the expanded use of high-stakes tests shows that a space has opened for an alternative to the politics of squeezed teachers and tight budgets. As Beth Dimino, President of the Port Jefferson Teachers Association, put it, “What’s happened in awakening the mommies and daddies is you’ve awoken the tax payers. People are starting to pay attention.”

As an example of this, one need look no further than Education Commissioner John B. King, Jr. When he toured of the state last year to explain the expanded use of high-stakes testing, he was met repeatedly by audiences of booing parents. In August, 1,500 Long Island parents filled an auditorium for a protest rally against his policies.

At the center of this protest sits NYSUT, which represents over 1,200 locals in school districts across the state. Invigorated by public and member sentiment against the commissioner, the NYSUT Board of Directors under incumbent president Iannuzzi unanimously approving a resolution declaring “no-confidence” in King at the end of January. It wasn’t the first time the federation broke with Democratic Albany; last year NYSUT’s legal department filed, together with several member locals, a constitutional challenge to Cuomo’s property tax cap.

But the federation’s campaign spending belies its oppositional posture in Albany. Given Pallotta’s record, his bid to run the federation appears intended to avoid heightening conflict with policymakers. Yet it is framed as an attempt to do exactly that: to capitalize on the popular and member discontent around austerity and competitive funding of public education. After all, his campaign rhetoric is one of democratic renewal, claiming that Iannuzzi’s left turn is too little too late.

But if public sentiment has indeed drifted to the left, with the election of Bill de Blasio serving as a de facto referendum on income inequality in New York City, it is unclear what Pallotta’s leadership will do to direct this energy. His success will prove the necessity of creating legitimate alternatives, lest teachers let popular resistance dissipate without institutional victories. As it is, those who really want to “Be the Union” will have to find another way to do it.

Irving Howe once wrote that, “The question facing the unions in the United States is not whether to be in or out of politics, but whether to enter aggressively or be dragged in limply.” NYSUT, for its part, appears to have been dragged in limply by the most conservative of Democratic politicians. It will be the task of the members to drag it out.