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October 30, 2009 @ 10:37 am

UFT Splinter Group Says Vote Anyone But Bloomberg

Via Andrew J. Hawkins and City Hall News:

This year, the powerful United Federation of Teachers skipped endorsing in the mayor’s race.

But a small, dissident faction within the union has decided to break ranks, calling the UFT’s silence a sell-out.

So who did the group of rabble-rousers lift up their voices for?

None-of-the above.

“The decision to sit out the contest between Michael Bloomberg and his opponents speeds us to the brink of more disasters,” the dissident group, Independent Community of Educators (ICE), said in a statement, adding however, “It is difficult to offer [Democrat Bill] Thompson unqualified support when he has thrown support to mayoral control and supports much of the underlying corporate agenda for education.”

Their advice? Vote for anyone on the ballot. Anyone not named Michael Bloomberg, that is.

James Eterno, a member of ICE who plans on running against Michael Mulgrew, the interim UFT president and chosen successor to Randi Weingarten, in next year’s union elections, said there was clear logic behind the group’s decision to speak out—sort of—on the mayor’s race while the rest of the union stays mum.

“In the schools, it’s a disaster,” said Eterno, who has taught social studies at Jamaica High School for 23 years. “We felt like we had to go on record opposing what’s been going on the last eight years.”

But Eterno said he cannot support Thompson, who has made Bloomberg’s management of the schools a central theme in his campaign.

“It’s one of those things where a lot of the times you have to hold your nose when you go into the voting booth and vote for the lesser of the evils,” he said, but declined to say which lesser evil his members should pull the lever for come Tuesday.

ICE is a splinter group of the New Action Caucus, a larger dissident faction within the UFT that regularly opposes the ruling party, the Unity Caucus. The underdog group numbers around 50 members, but holds no seats on the union’s 100-member executive board.

But they appear to be doing better in terms of getting teachers’ sympathies. A recent survey of UFT members appears showed that a majority of teachers are dissatisfied with the mayor and his chancellor, Joel Klein. When asked, 85 percent of UFT teachers said they disapproved of Klein’s management of the Department of Education.

While president, Weingarten was a vocal critic of Bloomberg’s education policies. But before moving to Washington to head the national teachers union, Weingarten softened her stance, endorsing the mayor’s move to reauthorize mayoral control this year.

Observers interpreted the UFT’s decision to stay out of the race as a calculated move to shield the union during its ongoing contract negotiations with the city or as an effort to remain neutral in deference to the entreaties of the campaign.

Eterno said he was dismayed, but not surprised, at the union’s decision to not endorse.

Other ICE members explain their decision to say something stems from a larger discontent among city teachers with the Bloomberg administration.

“Even though the union is neutral, the average teacher is against [Bloomberg],” said Norman Scott, a retired teacher, education blogger and member of ICE. “Most teachers are saying, ‘What choice do we have? Bloomberg’s probably going to win, and if we oppose him we might not get our contract.’”

As an internal opposition force, though, ICE’s power is limited, both Scott and Eterno admit. During her tenure, Weingarten was very successful in bringing factions like the New Action Caucus into her orbit, essentially neutralizing it as an opposing force, they say.

“Randi successfully co-opted the opposition, which was a brilliant tactic. She basically cut their balls off,” Scott said. “We’ve had to create a new opposition from scratch.”

Even Bloomberg’s staunchest education critics admit that opposition groups like ICE have lost a lot of ground over the years, rendering them all but toothless in matters such as endorsements and elections.

Unfortunately, UFT officials deny that ICE’s position on the mayor’s race reflects the feelings of the union’s membership as a whole.

“I wouldn’t call [ICE] a major player,” one UFT source said. “I don’t think most members know who these people are.”

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