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A Surreal Altercation

Eric Alterman has published a surreal response to this post. He writes that he was a target of “character assassination” when we noted that he had adopted a “lefter than thou” attitude toward the electoral strategy of teacher unions, with specific reference to the UFT’s practice of endorsing any incumbent, regardless of party, when they had supported positions on education, labor and human rights issues important to us. His objections to teacher unions, he now says, “has nothing whatever to do with political policies.” Rather, he says, it rests with “the union’s frequent inflexibility and resistance toward what looks to my admittedly non-expert eyes to be common-sense reforms.” The record tells a different story.

We have been able to find one prior published comment of Alterman that touches on criticisms of teacher unions in over nearly a decade of voluminous published writing. These results follow a number of different Google searches, as well as an examination of Alterman’s Nation columns, the portions of his Altercation blog still published on the Internet [here and here], and his posts on the Huffington blog. This blog post condemned the New York Times, SEIU 1199 and the “teachers’ union” for endorsing the incumbent Republican Governor, George Pataki, in his 2002 re-election campaign. [Personal disclosure: Alterman and I had an exchange in the comments section of his blog on the issue of the UFT’s endorsement of Pataki.]

This blog post in which Alterman criticizes teacher unions, as well as the exchange between Alterman and myself, are no longer available at the original MSNBC.COM site, as they sent Alterman and his blog packing last fall. However, there still are contemporaneous references to the post available on the Internet, at least one of which quotes a passage which specifically singles out the “teachers’ union” for criticism. There are many more references in Alterman’s published writings to the New York Times endorsement of Pataki, often citing Pataki’s failure to resolve the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. At one point, Alterman himself describes the Pataki endorsement as “kind of an obsession of mine.”

[As I noted in the comments section of the original post here at Edwize, the UFT endorsed Pataki in the 2002 campaign, after supporting his opponents in previous races, because he had personally intervened to obtain state funds to increase teacher salaries by 16% in the 2000 contract — the start of a process which concluded, in the most recent contract, by closing the gap between the salaries of suburban and city teachers. Achieving that benchmark was important not only for city teachers, but also for city schools and city students, because it eliminated a major cause of the hemorrhaging of experienced and accomplished teachers from New York City. In order to retain political credibility with elected officials of all political hues, the UFT endorses an incumbent who supports our issues in such a major way.]

Among the few times Alterman discusses unionism in print, there are a number of instances where he criticized other unions, such as when he objected to a Nation article that criticized Yale University faculty who were seeking to undermine the organizing of GESO, the Yale graduate student employees union, and when he criticized all of the New York City municipal unions for refusing to accept a Bloomberg proposal to diminish their health care insurance. But nowhere could we find another published criticism targeting teacher unions.

When an author as prolific at Alterman publishes nothing on what he now tells us are his criticisms of teacher unions, when his published criticism of teacher unions focuses on an electoral endorsement which is a self-avowed “obsession,” and when he then offers one line comments that “I don’t like teacher unions,” it would seem more than reasonable to conclude that his longstanding objections were to our electoral strategy. But reasonable does not seem the operative word in this exchange. When citing the published record becomes “character assassination,” we have entered into the world of Alice and the Looking Glass.

Now that Alterman has “come out” as someone who “agrees more with the DLC (Democratic Leadership Council, the original home of Eduwonk’s Andy Rotherham) than with the union,” and someone who believes that teacher unions are “frequently inflexible and resistant toward what looks to my admittedly non-expert eyes to be common-sense reforms,” perhaps he might share with us exactly which “common-sense reforms” bring himself and the DLC/Rotherham together. We understand that the market politics of “branding” considers the substantive issues unimportant, that the whole purpose of such politics is to issue sweeping generalizations and one line putdowns without offering substantive critiques. But enquiring education reformers need to know. Does Alterman fault teacher unions for being “inflexible and resistant” when we oppose “common-sense reforms” [see here, here, here, and here] advocated by Rotherham and this thinktank, Ed Sector, to raise class sizes? To lower the salaries of experienced teachers? To raid teacher pensions? To diminish teacher health care insurance? To have chronically underfunded urban schools, such as those in NYC, make do with their current funding? [On the last point, was there some point between Pataki’s refusal to resolve the CFE case and Rotherham’s current revelation that public schools can not expect more funding, but need to make do with what they now receive, that this became a “common sense reform?”]

We won’t even ask for an explanation on how any of these “reforms” will help schools.



  • 1 xkaydet65
    · Jan 30, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    Can’t speak for Eric Alterman and I am certainly to the political right of most on this board, but I have always wondered how the UFT could, with any conscience, consistently endorse Serphin Maltese for the State Senate. Mr. Maltese destroyed the Lay Faculty Assoc. at Christ the King HS in Queens in 1981. He permanently replaced 65 striking teachers, as he was Chairman of the School’s Board of Trustees.

    Three years later he provided support, bot moral and material, to the Board of St John’s Prep in their successful effort to destroy that school’s LFA Chapter. This time 96 teachers were replaced. Maltese providied access to a private detective agency to provide security, an anti union llaw firm to assist house counsel Kevin Quill, son of Mike, and he frequently arrived to strategize on how to hire new staff with Don Bertrand SJP’s Board Chair.

    Despite this record, Maltese was not only continually endorsed for reelection, but he was a welcome guest at UFT functions in CSB 24.

    As a victim of the 84 cleansing at SJP I have long regarded UFT support of Maltese as an immovable obstacle between me and my union.

  • 2 mvplab
    · Jan 30, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    The UFT did not endorse Maltese this election. See a list of UFT endorsements on their Web site.

  • 3 NYC Educator
    · Jan 30, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    But it certainly did in past elections. I distinctly recall seeing his name and being absolutely amazed. At the time I was working with several ex-Christ the King teachers.

    I had no idea he was also attending UFT functions. What on earth could a blatant union-buster like Maltese do to merit a UFT endorsement?

  • 4 Leo Casey
    · Jan 31, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    MVPLAB is correct that the UFT did not endorse Maltese in the most recent election.

    Over the years, there have been many spirited debates on the floor of the Delegate Assembly over whether or not to endorse Maltese — and the decision has gone both ways.

    For those who opposed endorsement, his role in the Christ the King strike was pivotal [and as an alumnus of the school, Class of 1971, many of the strikers were my former teachers and mentors], as was his opposition to legislation recognizing gay rights.

    For those who supported endorsement, Maltese’s support on educational issues and his role in the State Senate majority, which has generally been supportive of our issues, was important. Those issues may not invoke the same visceral emotion, but they are nonetheless important for the union’s work. To cite just one example, the State Senate, with a Republican majority, voted last fall to overturn a key Pataki veto of legislation. The bill in question gave the right to organize and bargain collectively to some 40,000 home day care providers, working poor women who are largely of color, with whom the UFT has been working. Organizing the unorganized, beginning with campaigns such as organizing the home day care providers, is essential to the health of the American labor movement.

    Electoral strategy is, of its very nature, an area where even reasonable people can come to different conclusions.

  • 5 xkaydet65
    · Jan 31, 2007 at 5:09 pm

    And if David Duke supported a UFT cause I’m sure he’d receive the Union’s coveted endorsement. Sometimes there’s right and wrong and supporting Serphin Maltese, under any circumstances was and is wrong. Hell as a conservative I voted against GHW Bush in 1988 solely because he held a political rally inside CK HS.

  • 6 NYC Educator
    · Jan 31, 2007 at 9:06 pm

    Perhaps I missed the part where Mr. Maltese cast the deciding vote as a direct result of that UFT endorsement.

    Other than his union-busting, about which my ex-colleagues told me plenty, I did not know much about Mr. Maltese. However, that alone was enough to make me vote against him when I lived in his district.

    I did not know Mr. Maltese was opposed to gay rights. Personally, I see no distinction between refusing to support civil rights and refusing to support gay rights. I find it incredible that the UFT sees things otherwise.

    In fact, we may as well support David Duke.

    And that notwithstanding, it’s plainly reprehensible for a union to support a union-buster, however expedient it may be.

  • 7 Leo Casey
    · Jan 31, 2007 at 10:38 pm

    I don’t know of any democractic decision making process which has always reached the conclusion I would have wanted, and I would imagine that this is the experience of virtually all citizens who are conscientious about casting ballots and participating in democratic processes. The strength of the UFT endorsement process — and what makes it worthy of support, even when one disagrees with a particular decision — is that the decision rests with a Delegate Assembly of hundreds of elected representatives from schools around the city. When a decision has been contrary to what I thought the right decision, I have always tried to figure out how to make a better case for what I thought was the right decision. For what it is worth, I have not found the use of hyperbole very effective in such a project.

  • 8 NYC Educator
    · Feb 1, 2007 at 6:21 am

    For what it is worth, I have not found the use of hyperbole very effective in such a project.

    And for what it’s worth, the very real circumstances of the Maltese endorsement preclude the need for hyperbole.

    · Feb 1, 2007 at 10:14 am

    Oh, yeah, Republican Conservatives from Queens are like Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Party leaders.

    No hyperbole there.

  • 10 NYC Educator
    · Feb 1, 2007 at 5:09 pm

    Interesting choice of words.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall saying anything whatsoever about Republican Conservatives from Queens. I believe I mentioned only Mr. Maltese. I work with kids from all over the globe, and I don’t much care for stereotypes.

    I find intolerance, whether directed against African-Americans, Jews, or gay people, or my students (wherever they may hail from) repugnant and unacceptable. I think gay people deserve the same civil rights as everyone else.

    Before I knew Mr. Maltese’s position on gay rights, though, his literal union-busting was quite enough for me.

    · Feb 2, 2007 at 12:11 pm

    I guess it must have been someone else, writing under the name NYC Educator, who compared Serphin Maltese, a Republican Conservative from Queens, to David Duke, a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party.

    You will understand my confusion, with so many different people writing around your name.

  • 12 NYC Educator
    · Feb 2, 2007 at 6:42 pm

    I certainly did compare Mr. Maltese, and only Mr. Maltese, with David Duke. I also explained what they have in common.

    I regret your apparent inability to distinguish between groups and individuals.

    · Feb 3, 2007 at 10:05 pm

    I guess it all depend on what the meaning ‘is’ is.

  • 14 jd2718
    · Feb 3, 2007 at 11:40 pm

    Go on and split your hairs. There is a problem with how we as a union approach endorsements.

    Try a different point of view: Why would we ever make an endorsement where we could not deliver the bulk of our members’ votes?


  • 15 NYC Educator
    · Feb 4, 2007 at 10:04 am

    I’m glad you guys can view support of union-busters and those who’d those who’d deny civil rights as “splitting hairs.”

    I assure you those who’ve experienced such things do not share your view.

  • 16 jd2718
    · Feb 4, 2007 at 11:11 am


    you even trash me when I agree with you? Get a grip.

  • 17 NYC Educator
    · Feb 4, 2007 at 11:15 am

    Sorry, I thought you were addressing both of us.

  • 18 jd2718
    · Feb 4, 2007 at 11:47 am

    There is something wrong with how we as a union approach endorsements. I have a problem, we all should have a problem, with some of the people our union has asked us to vote for.

    Asking why we endorse candidates for whom we can’t deliver votes is a way of looking at the same problem through a different lens.

  • 19 NYC Educator
    · Feb 4, 2007 at 11:58 am

    In these cases, it does not appear we are endorsing these candidates to deliver votes, but as a simple quid pro quo.

    Regarding Mr. Maltese, there simply can’t be enough quo for that quid.

  • 20 jd2718
    · Feb 4, 2007 at 12:27 pm

    That’s obviously abusive of the dedicated members who donate their time to phone bank.

  • 21 NYC Educator
    · Feb 4, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    That’s a bizarre and illogical conclusion.

  • 22 jd2718
    · Feb 4, 2007 at 7:49 pm

    If you don’t understand, it’s ok to ask.

    Bizarre? That UFT endorsement comes with UFTers getting on the phones, volunteers, and making calls to support (and you can fill in the name of a bad endorsement here). When teachers who want to donate time to help the union are asked to make calls pushing “quid pro quo” candidates (if you are correct), yes, that would be abusive.

    Perhaps to understand you might need to speak with someone who has done phone banking.

  • 23 NYC Educator
    · Feb 5, 2007 at 6:51 am

    While it’s indeed OK to ask, it’s better explain yourself and write clearly, which you have not. This notwithstanding, your explanation leaves much to be desired.

    First, Leo Casey associates the Pataki endorsement with the 02 contract, and the Maltese endorsement with his support for “educational issues and his role in the State Senate majority.”

    That sounds like quid pro quo to me. Personally, I don’t think the endorsements were based on the anti-teacher behavior of either candidate.

    As for your logic, perhaps you blame the waiter when the food you order is no good. Perhaps you blame the mailman when you receive the wrong package. While that’s illogical, it’s certainly your prerogative.

    I prefer to assume that the volunteers, like most people, were unaware that Mr. Maltese had a hand in busting two unions and opposes civil rights.

    If they were, indeed, aware of Mr. Maltese’s history, and went on to ask people to vote for this man, I can’t muster a whole lot of admiration for them.

    Can you?

  • 24 jd2718
    · Feb 5, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    Our volunteers shouldn’t be misused, abused, or whatever you want to call it by being asked to make calls for the likes of Maltese.

    You’ve managed to insult me in a string of posts, because — I write badly? A little more focus on fixing things and a little less on looking for a fight would probably be a good idea.

  • 25 NYC Educator
    · Feb 5, 2007 at 7:58 pm

    Actually, Jonathan, it’s because I don’t clearly understand who you’re addressing. The quid pro quo notion, though not in those words, has been up here and on other posts for a while.

    When you responded with the thing about the volunteers, I took it to mean you were somehow critcizing me for mentioning quid pro quo. That’s what I found so strange. I now see that’s not what you meant.

    I’d be perfectly content to be civil with you all the time, actually.

  • 26 jmshearer
    · Feb 9, 2007 at 1:57 am

    >in over nearly a decade