For months now, outgoing UFT president Randi Weingarten has made it clear whom she would like to see succeed her — chief operating officer Michael Mulgrew. But the seeming inevitability of Mulgrew’s election has not stopped two small opposition groups within the union from promoting their own candidate, James Eterno.
Eterno’s name didn’t make the list today, when the UFT’s executive board met to nominate candidates for interim president. Weingarten nominated Mulgrew and no one on the board offered any other names. Non-board members weren’t permitted to make nominations. Eterno’s party, the Independent Community of Educators, commonly known as ICE, as well as the Teachers for a Just Contract, do not have any members on the board, which is dominated by the UFT’s ruling party, the Unity caucus. At the end of the month the board will reconvene to vote in Mulgrew (according to the constitution, there have to be two separate meetings even if there’s only one candidate). But not being chosen won’t preclude Eterno from running for president in 2010, when all union members will vote.
Eterno is keenly aware of his role as the underdog. “It’s a long shot,” he said of his 2010 candidacy, which he and fellow ICE members are funding. “If you were making betting odds, you wouldn’t favor us.”
Eterno, 48, has been a social studies teacher at Jamaica High School for 23 years, and he served on the union’s executive board from 1997 to 2007. He left his party, the New Action caucus, when it made a deal with Unity to back Weingarten’s reelection, something Eterno vehemently opposed.
Still, he says he’s not running on an anti-Weingarten campaign, so much as an anti-Unity campaign. It’s how the union works rather than who’s at the helm that bothers him.
“My biggest gripe is that you have one political party that since the early ’60s has been running this union,” he said. The UFT “needs to run like a bottom up labor organization where the membership is really in control.”
If you want to put Eterno in a frenzy (but don’t, his wife, who is also a teacher, is due to give birth to their first child this weekend), ask him about the 2005 contract Weingarten negotiated with Chancellor Joel Klein, or the side deal she brokered a few weeks ago that creates a new pension tier in exchange for a later start date for teachers.
“The city has once again taken the UFT to the cleaners,” he wrote on ICE’s blog in reaction to the recent deal. “When you are enjoying those extra days off on September 3 and 4, just call them the billion dollar days. That’s roughly the amount that each day will end up costing us in the long run. For that kind of gift, couldn’t we get back just a little bit more of our professional dignity?”
He says the changes he wants to see in the way the union works would also change the way teachers do their jobs.
Eterno wants a contract that doesn’t oblige teachers to do hall patrol duty or run tutoring sessions if they don’t want to. He’d like some of the “nonfinancial sweeteners” back, he said, and less of an emphasis on test scores. “We’ve given them the grand enchilada,” he told me, referring not just to the pension plan that will require newer teachers to contribute more, but also to the many work rules that disappeared in the 2005 contract.
“I don’t expect much except cosmetic changes under Mulgrew,” he said.
The son of a Catholic school teacher — his mother taught the second grade in Flushing, Queens for 31 years — Eterno grew up on her small salary. “She made garbage,” he said, “It made me realize the absolute necessity for a union, a strong union.”