As COVID-19 cases swept through the country in March, New York City’s Department of Education (DOE) dragged its feet on closing schools. Teachers and school employees, seeing no movement on the part of the Department, organized protests and sick outs to pressure both their schools and their union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). It worked: following a rank and file-led mass meeting on March 14th calling for a sickout, the UFT changed course and threatened lawsuits on the DOE. On March 16th, schools were closed.
The UFT may be the largest local union in the United States. Comprising teachers, social workers, and other educational employees in the New York City school system, UFT represents nearly 200,000 members. The union has been run for nearly 60 years by a continuous leadership, the “Unity” Caucus, organizing its schools and offices through “chapters,” with chapter leaders serving as shop stewards.
The Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) was formed in 2012, following years of attempts to bring together a rank and file caucus in the UFT – notably, the caucus formed the same year as the historic Chicago Teachers’ Union strike. Following years of relationship building and activism, in March, MORE was positioned to respond to the COVID crisis in the schools. The caucus organized the sick outs and other job actions that successfully pushed their union and added the pressure needed to close the schools. MORE has since grown to 750 dues paying members.
Now, after months of remote instruction, the New York City schools announced that they would be reopening in the fall for the new school year. The UFT leadership threatened to strike, but at the last minute agreed to in-person instruction with limited random testing for coronavirus. As the first days of in-person classes approach, schools are unprepared, unclean, and unsafe.
Five members of the Movement of Rank and File Educations (MORE) caucus spoke to Tempest on September 15th about the struggle over safe teaching and learning conditions in the New York City school system.
On September 17th, two days after this interview, the UFT and Mayor de Blasio announced a further delay to physical reopening of schools, now slated to phase starting September 29th.
Annie Tan is a special education teacher, a writer and storyteller.
Caroline Sykora is an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher and is presently working on a graphic novel.
Marilena Marchetti is a school-based occupational therapist.
Kit Wainer is a recent retiree high and former UFT chapter-leader at Leon Goldstein High School, having taught in Brooklyn for 31 years.
Shoshana Brown is a school social worker for the DOE.
Andy Sernatinger: Let’s start by talking about where things are at currently. There was a strike threat, the strike did not happen. The UFT’s leadership reached a sort of agreement to re-open the schools. Where are things right now? What’s the situation?
Kit Wainer: I think it’s important to back up because it helps us understand the situation. UFT only made a strike threat because they saw that opposition among the rank and file was growing, that MORE was growing quite substantially, and that members really did not trust the city to reopen safely.
So, they started talking strike without doing anything that you would normally do to actually prepare for a strike. Even to prepare for a bureaucratic top-down style strike. They didn’t do any of that. Members had no idea what strike demands might even be. Union officials basically told union members to just start setting up strike committees.
Well, people don’t even know what that is. The only other advice they gave was to await further instructions. So, the strike was there to make it appear to the members that the union was preparing to fight, because they had to have that appearance. And also to scare some members because the strike is scary for a lot of people, so that when they call off the strike threat some people feel relieved.
Anyway, they called it off. The only agreement they got was to delay in-person instruction by seven or eight school days. Everything else was really nothing. So, members reported back last Tuesday. And there have been protests at dozens of schools all over the city.
The Department of Education is violating just about every single promise it made to pretty much every single constituency; in terms of ventilation, in terms of PPE, in terms of just routinely cleaning the building. One of our members reported walking into a school and finding dead rodents on the floor.
They set up an instructional system where the quality of work was preposterous. So there’ve been protests and union leadership is now I think getting the message that its members don’t like the deal. They’re starting to tweet out photos of a few protests that are not MORE-sponsored or MORE-encouraged. They don’t have that many of them, but they’re tweeting a few of them out. And now they’re doing a little more sabre-rattling about what they might do. De Blasio insisted on opening schools, but people are frightened around the school system. They’re really frightened and parents are getting more frightened. They’re pulling their students out and opting-in for remote in much larger numbers.
Annie Tan: Marilena and I were members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and were in Chicago during the 2012 strike where we witnessed months and months of organizing, starting from people wearing red for “color days” on Fridays, signing petitions, organizing so that people would do actions together.
All of that took many, many months toward a credible strike threat. And that is why in Chicago, when they threatened to strike around August 4th, they got full remote that same night. That was years and years of organizing that the UFT didn’t do. When we’re talking about what’s happening with these pickets, with a lot of chapters being organized for years and maybe some starting to get organized now, that’s been the organizing of chapter leaders within the school building.
A lot of what we’ve been building toward within the MORE caucus is building out our school’s chapters and our district chapters, so that we’re building power from the ground-up. This is bottom-up unionism, not top-down as the UFT has had for 60 years of power, with the Unity caucus.
We’re really proud of the work we’re doing. But we do realize that it was nowhere near enough, as Kit was talking about with the strike threat that the UFT made. The UFT just didn’t do the groundwork. That is why ultimately the strike threat failed.
Caroline Sykora: As one of the chapter leaders doing a whole bunch of organizing in the schools, I would say that was probably a huge catalyst for the sick out actually happening and for the schools actually shutting down [in March].
From then till now we’ve made incredible strides. And to a large extent, it has to do with the fact that we’ve been continuously going, and I’ve been encouraging members to go to MORE meetings. Just last Tuesday, we got to a point where we did do a 30-minute walk out.
It almost feels like they’re trying to get ahead of these actions that are happening. I don’t know if the right term would be “wildcat”, but they don’t want these actions outside of their own caucus to be happening. They don’t want to seem like they’re not in control of their members. To me, that’s what it looks like.
Andy Sernatinger: You mentioned that MORE has grown substantially through the last few months, and that the growth of the MORE caucus and the kind of leadership role that you all are taking has really pushed things. Can you explain a little bit about why you think the caucus has grown and how that has affected the union’s direction?
Kit Wainer: Well, the caucus grew for a few reasons. One, we were the only ones fighting back. The UFT leadership pretty much abandoned the field, both in March and then again over the summer. So, we were the only ones organizing resistance. And at the same time, there were just thousands and thousands of members out there who feel like the city is putting their lives on the line and the union’s not stepping up to protect them. They’re giving us just a really rapid-fire lesson in what bureaucratic unionism means. Like when push comes to shove, it could mean their lives. They want an alternative.
It’s also that there’s a general political climate in the United States where we’re not the only thing happening. There was just an article in Labor Notes about how rank and file teacher caucuses are skyrocketing in terms of membership in many parts of the United States right now.
And of course there’s the whole explosion of the Black Lives Matter movements, right? So, all that stuff sort of over-determines. There is a real groundswell. We didn’t create it. We’re just benefiting from it as a caucus.
Annie Tan: I’ve heard from many people saying that we’re the only game in town. People want to be a part of something and people want to know what to do right now.
There’s this tension we talk about within our caucus of people wanting to be told what to do, while we’re also creating a movement that is actually rank and file so that people actually have agency and choice. I think a lot of why people were drawn to MORE in March is because MORE has been the transparent caucus. That the rank and file can speak and can share our ideas.
One of the biggest strengths of the MORE caucus is just having people to talk to and to fight against the gaslighting that the Department of Education (DOE) has been doing for the past six months. People come with some ideas of what to do and then they hear from other people across the district, in the Bronx and Brooklyn, then they feel a little bit more empowered and have some more ideas. One member said to me that they felt like they could be creative again and be really thinking about what to do, and they could make decisions for themselves. A huge part of a rank and file movement that we all have agency. And we feel that we have power as individuals and as a collective.
Caroline Sykora: Watching my chapter members over the summer, I think their eyes are opening to the sorts of problems with the way the union is now. A huge turning point was we had that Delegate Assembly and [UFT President] Michael Mulgrew made the announcement that the strike was not going to happen and that there were concessions being made.
All of a sudden we’re in a Delegate Assembly voting on something we didn’t even get to bring back to the chapter. My chapters were very clear on what this is actually really all about and that it’s not democratic.
Andy Sernatinger: At about the time that the George Floyd uprising happened, schools were out across the country. Schools were all pretty much remote everywhere and nearly at summer break. What did Black Lives Matter look like for the MORE caucus at that time?
Marilena Marchetti: Because of the confluence of the COVID-19 crisis and people wanting to take fight back and the Black Lives Matter uprising, we got to actually execute all the principles that underlie why we exist: grassroots organizing, community collaboration, rank and file power, democracy. There was such a thriving movement around various things.
Our education justice advocates were doing incredible work to defund the police and to win police-free schools that are healing-centered. Not based on punishment but based on restorative justice and have counselors and people who support students versus School Safety Agents (SSA’s) and people who have criminalized and punished students. We joined their work and in a really meaningful way and brought in a very wide layer of educators and school staff who really give a shit about their students and have never been able to really dive into the work because of the lack of leadership around education justice coming from our union.
I think that we got it right. We listened to our community, the leadership coming from parent and student youth led organizations, and built bonds that were in development for years, but because of the political moment, hadn’t really flourished until now. There was a basis for it because of the principles within the caucus that are inspired by and informed by the Chicago Teachers Union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, the United Caucuses of Rank and File Educators, the caucus network of topics and language educators.
Shoshana Brown: I want to underscore the George Floyd uprising and the important work of anti-racism that the MORE caucus is doing. That really sets us apart. The UFT has voted down resolutions for Black Lives Matter where those similar resolutions have passed in other cities. [MORE]’s a place that people know that they can come [to] that is actively doing anti-racism work both amongst ourselves as a caucus, and also working with members to support Black Lives Matter at schools. That’s also a huge factor that has attracted a lot of teachers.
Kit Wainer: There’s a couple of other points that are worth noting. What George Floyd has shown to a lot of people, not just teachers, is that protest works. When you get to a critical mass and protest stops being just about demonstrating opposition, it actually can actually force some changes in policies. And I think a lot of teachers saw that and they were feeling this life and death situation and you got this message out there that protests can actually be effective.
When you think about the fact that people did step up, get more active, it did force the union to take a more militant public posture, it did force a delay of in-person instruction, and if in fact the mayor concedes and delays reopening further, members are going to take away from that the lesson that that’s because of the several dozen school protests that our people organized.
We have like a core of like three to four hundred people who are actively involved in our district committees. For almost all the ones that I interact with, the struggle for racial justice and education is very much tied in their minds to the struggle for our lives as union members. Contrary to what a lot of people, even on the left, think these issues do not alienate the rank and file. Quite the contrary. If we were to try to say, “Hey, let’s just focus on contract issues and not talk about that,” we’d alienated a lot of the people we just recruited.
Andy Sernatinger: So, instruction gets moved purely online, pretty much across the country, but it’s unclear kind of what the fall semester is going to look like. There’s the anticipation of the fall semester and starting the school year up again. What was MORE’s thinking about the new school year, what you expected, what you thought it should be, and the caucus’s approach to getting what you needed?
Marilena Marchetti: We knew right away that they were going to put us back before it would be safe to reopen. Prematurely and instantly after schools were closed, we started organizing our ideas for what a safe return would require, and it kind of coalesced into what we ended up naming a “health justice agenda.”
That includes restorative justice, police-free schools, general health safety (having a nurse onsite, having soap in the bathrooms), and then funding. Full funding from the state, which we have some legal issues where funding has been withheld.
We have a debt that’s owed to schools across the state. We understood that we needed to be remote until schools were safe in terms of their physical infrastructure. For the long term, to develop and build healthy communities, schools need to be transformed in some other ways. As an occupational therapist, I saw how important it was to get remote right for students in special education who are receiving therapy. Having a screen as the only tool for therapy was completely inadequate last school year. If the school, if the city actually understood that we couldn’t go back safely in September and was interested in supporting students remotely we could do things in a totally different, better way.
Students could have a weekly supply kit of craft materials and games that they could use, manipulatives that they could do with their parents or their siblings. There wouldn’t have been just one option for technology; they would have been offered a menu of options based on what their individual needs are.
Right now their screens are basically surveillance. It’s like an ankle bracelet. You can only log in using your DOE credentials. You don’t have access to an app store, so you can’t download anything that you may want, or your teacher service provider may recommend for you. It assumes that you’re irresponsible and you can’t have autonomy over your own learning or therapy experience with your provider-teacher who distributed the tech. So, if you understood that supporting them financially and with creativity was really important then they dropped the ball on that. We were fighting for that from the beginning.
Shoshana Brown: Once we went remote in March during the first wave, it became clear pretty quickly that this pandemic was going to drastically affect our entire lives and really impact and shift the future of our entire society. And quite frankly, the curriculum in our current education system is irrelevant and outdated.
Many of the things that we teach our students are not things that students are not future oriented. We’re not preparing students who enter into the world understanding how to navigate social media. Understanding like people, right? Our education system is far behind the time and even the best of private education systems are struggling to keep up with the pace of technology right now. We realized that the pandemic was an opportunity to really transform our education system and transform what we understood was important about learning.
Inside of our health justice agenda, we built in ideas around what education could and should be, that could be transformative and future oriented. Instead of taking the opportunity, taking a leap, being progressive, pushing forth the types of information and education that we are giving students in this moment, the DOE doubled down on archaic ways of being. The DOE took away Zoom for a little while and refused to have us be on Zoom and said, we are to use Google Meet, which is a subpar platform. It just showed the tendencies that a huge bureaucracy would naturally do, and it didn’t demonstrate flexibility and innovation in the way that we should.
We have a Chancellor, Carranza, who seems up with the times, who talks about white supremacy, openly, who names racism, who developed an entire office of equity and access. Where are they right now? What, what are they doing right now? They’re streaming online modules about implicit bias, right? That’s not what we need right now. So it just showed an inability to be flexible and responsive to the moment and take advantage of a major opportunity to totally transform a system that in any other moment would have been impossible to maneuver and impossible to transform.
And like Marilena said, they dropped the ball on so many levels. It’s really disappointing. Even from the social work standpoint, I don’t know what DOE central staff are doing. I trust that they’re working hard, but hard work goes nowhere without leadership and vision, and they’re not producing the things that we on the front lines need. They are not putting out really good guidelines on teletherapy.
Columbia School of Social Work is putting out more professional development for school social workers then the DOE is. We’re not getting any professional development on how to engage with students remotely. We’re not getting any directives on how to support our own boundaries as teachers when we are using our own phones; we’re not getting paid to use our own phone lines! We’re not getting paid to use our own broadband, our own internet at home, and we are using it. And there’s no guidance around how we protect our own personal boundaries as workers. There’s a lot of areas that just were missed marks.
Caroline Sykora: I’m just going to make one point here. And that is the direct link between the control the DOE tries to exert over the students is directly linked to the control they try to exert over the people and staff that are working in the schools. That the two things are directly linked and I think that because they are linked it we were able to take this moment and push on both sides of this: push on the labor side and push on the side of really re-envisioning what education could and should be.
Kit Wainer: The city proved either uninterested or bureaucratically incapable of doing anything but planning for a normal reopening: teachers and students going back into schools the way they were before COVID. The only strategy was, “let’s just send them back into the buildings and hope that it’s okay.” DeBlasio, our current mayor, is probably the most liberal mayor we’ve had since World War II, but essentially his strategy is the same as Trump’s. “Let’s just hope.” New York’s numbers are very low, so it’s not completely crazy to hope, but it’s not a reasonable risk to take.
All kinds of things that they really could have been thinking about since last spring, like, having elementary school students meet outdoors. There was actually a lot of interest in that. They could have just announced the parks are going to be closed to the general public; they are classrooms during the school day. They can close down streets for restaurants. They can’t close them down to have students outside? They could have said, “Okay, we want elementary school parents back at work, but we’re going to shut down the high school and middle school buildings and spread the elementary school kids among the different buildings in the district.” Right? So that you don’t have as much concentrate. All kinds of things that could have been considered.
Really nothing was done. There was just nothing. Just go back to work and if you test positive, try not to let people know about it. ‘Cause we don’t want the bad PR. That’s the only plan.
Caroline Sykora: And it’s not like those ideas weren’t out there. They were out there clear as plain as day to see and to feed off of, and to listen to, and to act on.
Annie Tan: This week, we were given these trauma-informed trainings, but it was directed at teachers to help students deal with their trauma. But I think Shoshana is absolutely right that we weren’t given any training on how to deal with our own personal boundaries as teachers. It goes back to the DOE doing a lot of lip service to a lot of things, but not actually following through because I think just overall bureaucratically, it’s hard to change a system, even if Carranza’s shouting equity and access and all of that.
I think it goes back to what happened in March, like 1 in 400 new Yorkers died of COVID-19 and we haven’t talked about it. We haven’t talked about it as an education system. And the DOE refuses to talk about its role in that. Columbia researchers said that had we closed schools and the city down a week earlier, we would have saved 50 to 80% of lives. And we know that the school system was not closed earlier because mayor de Blasio was being stubborn.
They have not apologized for what happened in March, and they’re not apologizing for anything they’re steam rolling through right now, which is why teachers have felt so gaslit and feeling crazy. I think that is also playing a huge factor in what’s happening.
Andy Sernatinger: Besides just being inept or afraid, what is the interest that the DOE would have in just reopening? Is there a pressure, is there something that gives them a reason?
Where I live in Wisconsin, a lot of it is that they view education as childcare and the school board says people are unhappy having their kids at home. They want their kids back in school, and we’re just going to take that as a terrible reason to return to school and put everyone at risk. But why would they just make no plans and not take seriously any of the alternatives out there?
Caroline Sykora: Initially it was about getting people back into the workplace. But I think that idea was shattered when they started proposing these crazy hybrid schedules where logistically getting anyone back into work is almost impossible.
Think of families who have kids in different schools and now they’re going to school once or twice or three times a week on completely different schedules. How do you even logistically do that? It does seem like it really is at this point just about egos and it’s a political game between Mulgrew, Cuomo, and de Blasio.
Kit Wainer: We do know that there has been growing pressure in September, especially from business leaders, especially in the financial sector. All of these sort of big New York City business organizations have been putting a tremendous amount of very public pressure on de Blasio to get schools re-opened back to normal, so that you don’t run into the problems that Caroline said of workers who can only show up two days a week and things like that. That pressure really is great. There was news reporting in August that even UFT President Michael Mulgrew had to reassure a panel of business leaders that the union was not trying to keep schools shut. I think Caroline’s right that they’re having a difficult time even doing it cause the blended model they’re coming up with doesn’t really satisfy it.
I think the city and business leaders see that as a step they can get going and then soon they’ll get everybody back into the buildings. Last spring, there was a lot of business support for shutting down. They understood that reopening too quickly would wreak havoc just in their own ability to maintain production. But it seems that this fall the tide has turned. One big financial leader issued a statement saying they want all city agencies to bring everybody back to work to serve as a role model for the private sector. Not because they think it’s safe, just because they need their private sector workers back.
I really think that’s a big part of it. Egos play a role, especially in conflicts between de Blasio and Cuomo. But I think the big thing is that they’re just trying to get the economy back up, get profitability back up in the private sector and they understand that schools play an important role. Elementary schools more so than high school and middle school, because parents can go to work even if your high school kid is not going to school, but in elementary school, you can’t.
Marilena Marchetti: They’re doing the same thing President Trump wants people to do. He just says it plain as day. Yeah. We need to reopen our schools to get our economy going, period. That’s what it’s about.
Andy Sernatinger: Kit, I think you mentioned that the UFT tried to assure business that the union was not intending to keep schools closed. How did the union address publicly what it’s position was about returning to school? Did they even do that?
Kit Wainer: They said that the goal of a strike was not to get remote education. They specifically opposed full remote education. They have some kind of logic, which I don’t see how it makes any sense, but their claim was if there’s remote learning there’ll be teacher layoffs. It was like a scare tactic.
So what was their goal? Who knows because they never announced any goals, and they never asked members what their goals should be. They just said we might strike, for some reason. In any case, they weren’t demanding full remote, so it was not inconsistent for Mulgrew to make this promise on the one hand to business leaders and still say, we might have to go on strike.
Annie Tan: The initial strike threat was around having mandatory testing for both teachers and students, having the supplies and PPE that are necessary, and having the ventilation and buildings reports. From my understanding, those are the three points that they were talking about. We have seen this week, it’s the 15th, that all three of those things are [still] issues across the schools, but they averted a strike. The thing that was the sticking point was around the mandatory testing and they settled for a mandatory random testing of 10% of schools, monthly.
When they settled for that, that put people into buildings that had coronavirus, not all of whom got tested, I’m sure, and it has exposed every single person who [encountered] that person, to coronavirus. That’s 55 cases that the mayor knows about. This past week, the media committee of MORE has been collecting rank and file reports and have documented 29 cases so far, across the city.
It’s been mind boggling how little transparency the UFT and the DOE have about publicizing cases, especially in a global pandemic where you really need the trust of the public to reopen.
Andy Sernatinger: If the union has closed ranks with the DOE and the city, kind of accepted that this is what’s going to happen, what is MORE’s approach to that? How do you foresee dealing with workplace safety, school safety, and doing what needs to be done?
Caroline Sykora: It’ll be interesting to see if we continue and the kids do come back, how much steam there still is in my chapter. Because I know they feel torn between wanting to be there for the kids and wanting to do the right thing by them in terms of their health and safety and their own health and safety.
Right now people are focused, at least in my chapter, on continuing resisting this whole push to be inside the buildings. We will see what happens next week. I don’t foresee this going down, especially with chapters with a strong MORE presence, without a fight.
Annie Tan: There’s always been a tension among teachers of like, how much do we give to our students and how much do we give to ourselves? I think this is totally playing out in our school buildings right now. There are definitely teachers who want to be in-person and I’ve talked to a lot of teachers who are like, “I really want to, but my life isn’t worth it.” I think so many teachers are going to have to wrangle with that on Friday when we see how much PPE is actually in our school; when we see that the building ventilation reports are still not fully complete, when we see that, there was still not enough testing happening.
I believe that the UFT is going to escalate something. I’m not sure exactly what it’ll look like and whether that will help members mobilize to fight that tension that we always have as teachers to be martyrs and to give of ourselves so much. But I do believe that we have the power to shut down the schools if we take it. But we have to do it collectively so that none of us get retaliated against. It has to be a collective effort. It can’t just be one person or even one school.
The UFT and the DOE’s deal two weeks ago was so effective in dividing schools and making it a piecemeal effort where individual schools had to picket. And we have several dozen schools who are fighting right now. So we’re going to have to make that a larger push that MORE cannot do by itself. I’m hoping that the UFT takes a stance and actually has a spine to protect its members.
Kit Wainer: You know, it sounds harsh, but the reality may turn out to be that it will take students coming back and a big jump in positive test results, leading to a lot of UFT members who really wanted to believe that this was going to be okay to suddenly realize it’s not.
A crisis situation is just bubbling up. In a certain sense, that was kind of what was what happened in March and the days leading up to the shutdown.
Andy Sernatinger: What’s next in this fight and for the rank and file reform movement? Any last things you’d like to say?
Marilena Marchetti: We are not for normalizing death. No one has to be sacrificed because of the economy. Doesn’t have to happen. We can all be safe and fine until we have a solution to COVID. Having that moral authority and actually being people who feel very moved by what the folks that we lost directly in our immediate circle and indirectly in March and April, we’re not letting go of that memory. We are marching, mourning for the dead and fighting like hell for the living. It’s good to be on the right side of history and to be fighting with parents and students right now. Cause these fucking asshole monsters trying to run the show don’t give a fuck about us.
Annie Tan: This week (September 16, 2020) may be the most important week of our profession here in New York city for so many of us. We have to take this moment. It’s been a lot. We are burning out. Everyone on this panel has worked so many hours in the past two weeks — it’s basically a second full time job doing this work. We know that in a week there will be a resolution, to something. And that resolution better be that we all keep us safe.
We’re going to be fighting like hell. This is kind of a calm before the storm, because it’ll be Friday and then this weekend where members really decide, “am I going back into the school building with students on Monday? “
Shoshana Brown: I would just say that I think that this is about our life and it is about the life of New York city, and the humanity of New York City. We’re saying we’re not going to die for the DOE because Wall Street is not dying for us.
New York City is my home. My parents were born in New York. Like I go way back. This is not just like a place where people can come and, you know, get a glimpse of the big city and leave. This is our home. There is nowhere that we’re going to go. It’s everyday New Yorkers that actually matter, versus the dollar.
What feels really important about this moment is that when I have seen amazing people get inspired and feel hopeful because we are coming together as a community, because more does create that space.
It’s not just about, “let’s fight back against unity caucus” and “fight the union to fight our bosses.” It’s also like let’s come together and support each other and not feel isolated and not feel and fight back against the trauma and the violence that it’s being put on us right now. The DOE is enacting serious violence not only on students and youth, but also on workers in the condition that they’re setting up. Creating MORE as a space for community organizing and organizing from the bottom up is also a healing experience.
When I come to MORE, I feel totally supported, I feel totally heard. And I feel that there are spaces where we are empowering everyday rank and file members to take action, and to take back our power and to take back our voice.
And I’ve seen that, in the picket lines, in the Bronx at Grace Dodge campus. I’ve seen that over the summer at our health justice meetings where we would get even over a hundred, sometimes 200 or 300 people logging into our health justice meetings to talk about the health justice agenda, and to organize when we’re marching on Carranza’s apartment. I’m seeing that happen and that is really powerful.
We’re building the union, whether or not right now we win this particular fight. This is for the long haul. Our union won’t dissipate after this fight and we are growing the numbers of people who see a different way and who see that it’s possible to have a union that actually hears them and listens to them and supports them and represents their interests and their needs.
Caroline Sykora: Basic to being human is to be in relation to someone else or to society. And MORE is creating the space to reimagine, how we relate to each other? I think Annie also mentioned this like incredible feeling that you are able to be creative in this organization, both with how you relate and how you push for the things that you feel need to change.
It took time to build those relationships and you just have to trust the, you know, trust the process. It works. And it’s amazing when it does, when you see people’s minds click, “Oh, there could be a different way to do things.”
Kit Wainer: I’ve been active in trying to build a rank and file movement in the UFT for decades. MORE was formed in 2012 and I was one of the original MORE members.
And for most of our existence it was not like this. Our first few years we might get 60 or 70 people at our [regular] meetings. The last few years it’s been more like 20 to 30. This is in a union of 110,000 active members. A lot of the success doesn’t depend entirely on us.
Consciousness can change because of outside factors: COVID’s an outside factor. The George Floyd uprising was an outside factor. In a certain sense from a New York city standpoint, the whole Red for Ed movement nationwide is outside for us because we weren’t involved in it, but it shifted people’s consciousness.
And then something, something shifts in a large number of people. And if you’ve built an organization, then you are there to try to organize it. If there had not been a caucus, I don’t know that one would have just come together. I think there would have been just a lot of generalized anger, kind of like in these like sparkles going off in lots of different directions, without necessarily a mechanism for trying to bring it together and learn from it, get people in touch with each other, things like that.
It’s worth trying to persevere even through hard times. That’s the only way you’re there when things turn around, is if you’ve done the work during the hard times.
Caroline Sykora: I try to remind myself you plan something and you’ll have like five people turn up. It just happens in, in really small increments. And I’ve learned that it’s like, you can’t expect the whole package to come all at once. You just build from there.
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Andrew Sernatinger is a labor activist and member of DSA in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a member of the Tempest Collective and has written for New Politics, International Viewpoint and Jacobin.