The Movement of Rank and File Educators and the Case for an Inside/Outside Strategy to Build a Progressive Big Tent Within the UFT

As we come out of both our biannual MORE State of Our Union event and the recent Labor Notes conference, I wanted to write down some of my thoughts about our union and our caucus in the current moment. I have been wanting to write something longer like this for a while, so I really appreciate anyone who takes the time to read it. I hope this helps continue discussions about our work together in the upcoming months and years. I sincerely believe in our collective vision of building the UFT into a strong, militant, and democratic class struggle and social justice union. This is not only possible, but necessary if we want to create real social, economic, and racial justice in our city, state, and country. Furthermore, I believe that UFT activists in MORE and many of the structures we have created together are crucial parts of making this a reality.

If I were to try to distill my thoughts into two main ideas, it is first that I believe that it is seriously worth MORE members employing an “inside/outside” framework and strategy to our work within the UFT. By this I mean to say that we can and should simultaneously build independent lateral structures of rank and file activists within the union AND also participate in officially sanctioned union spaces so as to build the capacity and strength of the UFT. And second, I would argue that we in MORE should see ourselves as building a “pole” within a wider “big tent” of progressives and class struggle unionists within the broader UFT membership. Building this “big tent” will better enable us to pass reforms that push the union in a more militant direction while also taking steps to build the foundation of an internal revolution of leadership and its relationship to the rank and file.

I believe by utilizing these frameworks and implementing them in developing strategies, we have a serious chance of transforming our union in order to tap into the collective power of educators and our school communities. I borrowed these concepts from political debates around questions of electoral and campaign strategy outside of our union, but I believe they are applicable frameworks for thinking about our work in the UFT and how we can help make serious change.

I began writing this a couple of weeks ago in preparation for our recent State of Our Union and in trying to think about what I wanted to bring and take away from the event. The process of writing, as well as conversations during the event and afterwards at the Labor Notes conference in Chicago, helped me clarify some of my thoughts. I initially planned on just focusing on my first point about an “inside/outside” strategy, but as I continued to write and as time went on, I found myself having more to say about the second half of helping build a “big tent” of progressives within the union. I hope that my writing helps elaborate on some of my ideas that I brought up at the State of Our Union and also reach a wider audience of caucus members who weren’t in attendance. I write respectfully to members of the Movement of Rank and File Educators, however, I hope that my reflections are also meaningful and applicable to others in the wider UFT membership who are interested in building and reforming our union.

Inside/Outside Strategy

From my point of view, there is often an apprehension within MORE and the wider rank and file and dissident caucus milieu to participate in official union structures, and I understand why. There are countless times that I can think of where I witnessed UFT leadership stifling discussion, debate, or dissention within these spaces. Whether it is at the Delegate Assembly, the Executive Board, the Negotiating Committee, or at various union meetings, there is clearly often a strategy employed from the front of the room to limit minority opinions and manufacture consent for a frequently all too conservative agenda. Perhaps a recent example familiar to some was when rank and file formations within the union were implied to be internal enemies deserving to be “shunned” by fellow union members.

But the question is, what do we do about this lack of democracy in our union, and how do we go about trying to change it? I would argue that it will take both “inside” and “outside” work within our union to do so.

By “outside” work, I mean independent rank and file infrastructure for shop floor union members, activists, and leaders outside of the officially sanctioned chain of command. This is to say our caucus and its various committees, working groups, chats, and campaigns.

Take one very important independent “outside” structure that we have created as an example: our network of Chapter Leaders and Delegates. Whether it is to communicate about contractual or workplace issues to help Chapter Leaders represent members on the job and build their chapters, or to strategize voting plans on resolutions at the Delegate’s Assembly, our network fosters deep member self activity and participation within our union. We don’t wait to be given the green light to organize, we just take initiative and build the union through this structure of our own creation.

In fact, even if we were to have a progressive, left-wing, militant elected leadership of the UFT, this independent rank and file infrastructure would still be important to maintain in order to foster organization and struggle against the political establishment of the City and their Billionaire class funders. I believe this point warrants a deeper conversation about how to maintain rank and file caucuses and infrastructure once progressive and class struggle/social justice slates win union leadership, but we’re not quite there yet and there are prerequisite questions to address first. Hopefully this question and organizing dilemma can be a focus of ours at a future State of the Union after we have helped win a progressive and class struggle leadership in the UFT.

I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of members in MORE believe in the importance of “outside” work, but what about “inside” work? By “inside,” I mean any officially sanctioned union space. Technically our school based union chapters are the clearest example of these spaces, and many of us believe that our chapters are the most important venues for our activism and work as union activists. In fact, we ultimately create many of our “outside” structures to help us build these “inside” structures. Because, what good is a union unless you have dedicated and trained shop floor union leaders and activists that help build organized chapters? Not very good at all!

But I believe that there are other official union structures that we should consider engaging with, and many of which we already do. For example, a step above the chapter level in the official union hierarchy, there are elected leadership bodies like the Delegate Assembly and the Executive Board. There is still a fair amount of debate within MORE about how to orient within these spaces given that they are often highly factionally polarized and come with their own set of opportunities and limitations. But we have clearly collectively decided in the past that it is worth trying to intervene in these spaces to some degree, and I would argue that it is worth continuing doing so moving forward.

In fact, our current Chapter Leader and Delegate election campaign seeks to deepen our bench of elected leaders within the union, and therefore after June, we will have to come together to determine how we want to leverage our power within the Delegate Assembly and in our chapters. I believe that if we were to seriously increase our number of Chapter Leaders and Delegates, it would have an immense impact on our ability to help direct the official positions of the union on multiple fronts. I also believe that in order to do so effectively, we will have to relate to other non-MORE UFT members and activists in non-factional and non-sectarian ways. I believe that we should treat these activists and members as what they are, our fellow union brothers, sisters, and siblings even when we have strong disagreements with them. I will always make the case that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, but regardless of the tactical implications that this brings up, we are headed in a direction of needing to think through even more of an “inside” strategy within the union after this June.

Perhaps the most unorthodox case that I want to make in regards to the “inside/outside” question is that there are other official UFT spaces that are seriously worth considering our participation in. I have found union committees, like heritage and cultural, professional, or campaign based, to be some of the most interesting spaces for organizing work within the UFT. Based on my own experiences over the past couple years, I deeply believe that these are some of the most fruitful “inside” spaces within the union to plug into to help build and transform the UFT. Although joining a committee or two probably doesn’t sound very sexy and definitely entails serious limitations and contradictions, I believe that rank and file activists joining official UFT committees, or even helping start them, are meaningful ways of building and directing the union.

My first experience witnessing the potential of these types of union spaces occurred during my time in the Class Size Committee. I first joined the committee in the spring of 2022 after getting an email announcing that there would be a UFT campaign around reducing class sizes. Once I signed up, I was invited to a mass Zoom call that explained the goal of building a campaign, and I was then invited to join an official committee that would take on developing strategy and pursuing this goal. I soon became a frequent participant of the nearly weekly meetings, and by nature of regularly attending and participating in the committee in good faith, I was given the time of day to help shape the direction of the work.

It has been my experience that in a lot of UFT campaign-focused spaces, there is not necessarily the same factionalism and closedness that I was used to seeing at the DAs. And more importantly, these committees are often run as participatory bodies, meaning that those who continue to show up and “do the work” actually do end up having more of a platform and sway. There are definitely limitations to how far you can move the needle, and this may not be the case within every committee or official union space, but I believe it is worth rank and file activists experimenting and joining committees to test the waters and possibilities for organizing.

Another “inside”experience that convinced me of the value of participating in these sorts of union spaces was during my time on the union’s Negotiation Committee throughout 2022 and early 2023. On the Negotiating Committee, like in the Class Size Committee, leaders and rank and file unionists alike seemed much more willing to give you the time of day when you were a part of the work. For instance, proposing the creation of a Contract Campaign and the building of Contract Action Teams in schools was ultimately greenlit because those of us from MORE proposing it were members of the negotiating committee who continuously showed up throughout the course of bargaining.

We can criticize the weaponization of “we do the work” to shut down dissenting voices in the Delegates Assembly, but I also have seen firsthand how showing up to be a part of the work in these various “inside” union spaces really does open up space for getting your point of view considered and across to not just the top union leadership, but also a large swath of the existing activist layer of UFT membership as well.

I think we recognize and often affirm a similar participatory ethos within MORE, where we listen to the people we know give their time and effort to build the organization. “The work” is done within our caucus by tireless activists, many of whom are behind the scenes and are often women and gender non-conforming siblings, and we try to affirm the perspectives and opinions of these member leaders who put in so much of their time and effort to build the caucus. If this is the case within MORE, it seems completely reasonable to assume it could be the case within the union as a whole. And therefore, I would argue, it warrants our being there, “in the room,” and “doing the work” of the broader union.

Finally, my most recent experience navigating the contradictions and possibilities of “inside” work comes from proposing the establishment of a new committee and then having it approved. The UFT Climate & Environmental Justice Committee was officially created by a DA resolution that was passed in the spring of 2023 after a CTU and CORE activist reached out to me to see if we could try to get the UFT to support a national week of action for Climate Justice. Since then, I have found myself in uncharted territory as a co-chair of the committee and spending even more time not just participating in, but actually building an officially sanctioned space for activism within the UFT.

It’s a brand new committee so the jury is still out to see just how much we can do, but I am quite optimistic. Furthermore, it leads me to wonder what other types of official “inside” spaces activists and militants could have approved and help create officially within the union. Would it be worthwhile to try to create a Labor Solidarity Committee to coordinate the UFT’s response when other unions ask for solidarity, whether it be financial or turning members out to a picket line? Would it be worthwhile trying to help build COPE into a real Political Education Committee within the union to lead study groups, panel discussions, film screenings, or book clubs looking at public sector unionism or the UFT’s history? Would it be worthwhile building a “member to member” organizing committee that could help field and develop new organizing drives at charter and private schools throughout the city? Would it be worthwhile to establish a Next Generation Committee for members under the age of 35 to socialize and organize together? I don’t know that the answer to all of these questions would be yes, but I would definitely say that they are all possibilities worth considering, and rank and file members could help make them happen.

So why get involved in this type of “inside” union work?

From my experience, I would say there are a couple of reasons. First is that by doing so, you meet fellow union members. You meet UFT activists from different walks of life and build trust that you are at the end of the day union siblings in a common struggle. You get to meet Chapter Leaders, Delegates, and rank and file members that are already activated in wanting to help build the union. Also, by being in these spaces, you can be seen as a real rank and file union leader and member activist by a much broader base than just the members at your chapter or within the MORE network.

Secondly, and probably most controversially in regards to the “inside/outside” question, I believe that you can truly make an impact on the direction of the work. I will note that I have spoken to some in the caucus who have very strong disagreements with this point, but I believe that by being in these spaces you can get the union to support policies that it didn’t previously support, and you can get the union to take actions that it wasn’t previously planning on taking.

There is in all organizing work a limit to what you can accomplish, as I am constantly navigating in the Climate & Environmental Justice Committee. But I believe that we can shape union policy by being in these “inside” spaces, and the open question is how much we can do so. And I believe that all of our work in the union is connected, so moving the needle in one space helps create openings in other spaces. If people remember, we were able to pass a floor amendment to a Delegate Assembly resolution regarding the class size campaign by changing the proposed language about only considering City Council legislation to instead a tactical flexibility that considered any and all methods for winning smaller class sizes including through state legislation and even in a contract campaign.

I believe that being “inside” the Class Size committee both helped actually build the union’s campaign around lowering class sizes as a good in and of itself, and it also gave serious credibility and authenticity to speak on the question of campaign strategy at the DA. And then afterwards, back in the Class Size committee, this newly declared position of tactical flexibility from the DA opened up further space to actually implement it and build the campaign. Therefore, being “inside” both the Class Size Committee and the Delegate Assembly pushed union policy, ultimately helping win state legislation to reduce class sizes. The struggle continues regarding implementation of the law facing Mayoral opposition, so it is even more important that MORE members and rank and file UFT activists continue to plug into this work.

To wrap up, my claim is that we should be doing both “inside” and “outside” work, not to drop one and just focus on the other. I am again working with the assumption that MORE activists already believe in the value of doing “outside” work, so I have largely focussed on the case for also plugging into official union spaces. And in addition to moving the needle of union policy, there is another reason why I believe we should be plugging into official union spaces: in order to build and organize a “big tent” of progressives and class struggle unionists within the UFT.

Building a Progressive “Big Tent” Within the Union to Wield Power

Although Rosa Luxembourg would probably have something to say about my anachronistic use of her theory of working class revolution, I think a “reform” and “revolution” framework is useful for thinking about strategies within our union.

To my mind, a “revolutionary” strategy within the UFT is one that seeks to replace the existing leadership and apparatus of the union with a new militant progressive leadership through an internal election along with simultaneous restructuring of the bureaucracy and its relationship to chapters and the rank and file membership. A “reformist” strategy on the other hand is one where rank and file activists try to pressure the existing leadership and bureaucracy towards a more progressive and militant strategy without actually contesting the position of officeholders or fundamentally changing the relationship between leadership and rank and file. I believe that pursuing both “reform” and “revolution” in the UFT is not only not mutually exclusive, but it is crucial for activists to pursue them simultaneously.

I would argue that for starters, most of the “inside” and “outside” union spaces listed above mainly demonstrate examples of pursuing “reforms” within the UFT. Wherever MORE and other rank and file UFT activists intervene to try to push the union in a more progressive and class struggle direction, we are essentially trying to reform the union. I believe that reforming the UFT is crucial and worth pursuing, and something that MORE has done very effectively throughout its history. But what is there to say about an internal revolution within the UFT, and to what degree can participation in these same “inside” and “outside” spaces help also bring about a “revolution?”

For starters, there is serious reason to believe that a revolution within our union is a worthwhile strategy to consider, and there are countless examples from the labor movement in recent history to give us inspiration. From the UAW to the Teamsters, internal revolutions within unions have blown open space for worker militancy and subsequent progressive politics. Just look at the Chicago Teachers Union and their successful internal revolution led by our namesake the Caucus Of Rank and File Educators, or CORE. This revolution enabled their 2012 strike that arguably sparked our current wave of worker and labor militancy, not to mention helping cohere a pole of progressive working class politics in their city, most recently culminating in electing CTU activist and organizer Brandon Johnson as Mayor. To my mind, the CTU is the model for what our educator unions can be, and it is worth doing whatever we can to try to follow in their footsteps.

A “revolutionary” strategy within the union is in fact why I joined MORE in the first place seven years ago, and why I, along with many of our MORE comrades, go to the Labor Notes conference in Chicago every two years. But it’s worth analyzing specifically how a revolutionary strategy could play out within the UFT to see if and how we should adapt our tactics to more successfully move the needle. In other words, do we think that a CORE/CTU style strategy is possible in the UFT? Or, do we think a TDU/Teamsters strategy is possible? How about a UAWD/UAW one? Each of these examples from recent history show that it is possible to fundamentally rupture the conservative status quo within unions and win progressive and class struggle leaderships, but each of them followed different processes and trajectories.

Looking at the terrain within the UFT, I would argue that MORE independently winning an election for union leadership like was done by CORE in the CTU is very unlikely. But I would argue that recent examples from the UAW and Teamsters offer more realistic models for pulling off an internal revolution within the UFT in order to build and wield the power of the union like they do in Chicago. Both of these examples show the need for building a “big tent” of progressives, class struggle militants, dissidents, and reformers working together if we are serious about winning.

For starters, it is important to note that the Unity Caucus as it is currently organized is an incredibly effective and efficient political machine that has been able to consolidate and maintain control of the UFT and AFT for more than 60 years uninterrupted. In Chicago, the previously long-standing leadership caucus was weak and the CTU had even gone through a change in leadership in the decade leading up to CORE’s election. This combined with a favorable political and economic terrain, membership disappointment in existing union leadership, and a dedicated group of activist organizers in CORE all made the election of Karen Lewis and the CORE slate possible.

Furthermore, in the UFT, rank and file, dissident, and “opposition” caucuses have proliferated. Ultimately many caucuses operate more like electoral political parties within our union rather than as independent rank and file union infrastructure, and the field is crowded to a degree that seriously hampers MORE’s (or any one caucuses’) ability to win a CORE-style election. In 2019 when MORE ran alone for union leadership, albeit explicitly only in order to spread the vision and ideals of the caucus rather than actually contesting for power, we received a lower percentage of the vote than even another opposition caucus, both in single digits. On the other hand, in the most recent UFT election, a coalition of caucuses and groups formed United For Change and got, to my knowledge, the highest percentage of vote that a dissident slate has ever received in UFT history.

And yet, the UFC coalition and MORE’s relationship to it was filled with complications, so much so that many of the people most deeply involved with the coalition feel hesitant and skeptical of repeating a similar strategy for a UFC regroupment moving forward. I would point out that very often, the primary point-of-unity of the various groups of UFC was the lowest common denominator of opposition to the existing UFT leadership, rather than a proactive or progressive vision for what the union could be. Therefore, we can learn a positive lesson from this recent experience about the political benefits of building coalitions, but also a negative lesson about building a political formation that lacks leadership with reputation, name recognition, and progressive vision.

But in comparison to both the CORE-style and UFC style elections, the UAW and Teamsters give us another option for how to successfully pull off an internal revolution in a union. In recent years, reformers and “internal revolutionaries” pursued a different strategy for transforming their unions. In both of these instances, reformers built broad coalitions and slates that also included former leaders who had grown disillusioned with the old guard leadership. Although rank and file caucuses like Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) and Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) were instrumental in building coalitions and winning these fights, in both of these cases, it was former old-guard officers and staff who actually sat at the top of the ticket for their respective slates. There was something about this coalition of rank and file caucus and former old-guard leaders that enabled both slates to win, transform their unions, and win monumental victories in subsequent contract campaigns.

In the Teamsters, Sean O’Brien was famously a pro-Hoffa officer who broke with the ruling caucus after their widely unpopular UPS contract in 2018 was forced through a ratification process to the membership. He then teamed up with TDU and the Teamsters United coalition to ultimately win leadership of the International. The new leadership, still working in a broad coalition with shop-floor activists and leaders in TDU and beyond, mounted a militant contract campaign with a serious strike threat that forced the company to concede and resulted in a contract widely hailed as life changing and transformative. And, as in all of our work as unionists, the struggle in the IBT and at UPS continues. There was and is still serious debate about whether the union should have pulled the trigger and struck, and about what went well and what didn’t go well during the campaign. Importantly, TDU still exists as an independent rank and file institution that provides space for members to come together and strategize about what to do next within the union and how to relate to the O’Brien leadership. Regardless of difficulties and setbacks, it is clear that TDU’s willingness to work with former pro-Hoffa leadership opened up immense space for worker organization and struggle that will reverberate in the years to come into the next contract fight at UPS and beyond.

In the UAW, a similar process took place but went even further. After the old guard leadership of the union was facing serious corruption charges by the DOJ and former leaders were sent to prison, rank and file activists in UAWD won the reform of ensuring “one member, one vote” for choosing leadership for the first time in the union’s history. This enabled the building of a broad coalition between UAWD and yet another former local leader and staffer under the old guard, Shawn Fain, in order to come together and form the UAW Members United slate. Like in the Teamsters, a heterodox coalition of progressives and class struggle unionists in the wake of a massive internal reform enabled the opposition to win leadership of the UAW. This has led to some of the most exciting developments in the American labor movement in recent history. The new UAW leadership under Fain led autoworkers at the “Big 3” out on strike and pioneered the “Stand Up Strike” strategy. We are still witnessing the effects of this victory, from winning a transformative contract including winning new EV battery plants into the union contract and re-opening shuttered plants, to spurring new organizing throughout auto plants in the South, to being one of the first unions to publicly call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Again, none of this would have been possible if a “big tent” hadn't been created within the UAW in order to transform the union.

So perhaps most controversially, I would like to make the case that this type of strategy is possible and possibly our best option for making substantial change in the UFT in the current moment. In fact, I would argue that building a genuine progressive“big tent” in our union would ultimately have to cross the usual lines of the caucus divide and include progressive members of Unity and the other groupings within “the opposition” and rank and file milieu. To be honest, what this type of formation could look like is unclear to me, and there are serious pros and cons to the various ways of executing it. Whether we decide to try to help create a formal coalition of existing groups and caucuses, create a new broader caucus that could allow dual membership, form a slate for leadership elections, help create a publication for strategic discussion and debate, or simply come together to work in various committees or campaigns, there are serious possibilities and limitations to each option.

In my experience working in a variety of “inside” union spaces as described above, from my own school-based chapter to the Delegate Assembly to the Class Size Committee to the Negotiating Committee to the Climate & Environmental Justice Committee, I see that there is a huge base of progressive minded union militants who want to do good work to build the UFT. Furthermore, I believe that there is a massive constituency of members that want to make our union a serious power player in the city, state, and country in order to fight for public schools, our communities, and the multiracial working class. I believe that there are progressive and radical rank and file members, Delegates, Chapter Leaders, staffers, and even some higher level leadership in the UFT who believe in transforming our union into something bigger than it currently is. It is up to us to meet people where they are at, figure out how our visions for our union are similar, and find a way to work together.


Thank you to anyone who read through this. Writing down my thoughts about how we can intervene in the current movement has been useful for me to clarify my own thinking, and I hope it is useful to others as well. I would argue that the stakes of seriously considering our collective union strategy at the current moment are quite high. In addition to the regular timeline of budget cycles, elections, campaign arcs, and crises outside of our control, the next 5 years are filled with big milestones for our union, and it is worth asking ourselves where we want to be in preparation for each of them:

  1. Spring of 2024 - Chapter Leader and Chapter Elections
  2. Fall of 2024 - US Federal and Presidential Election
  3. 2025 - Top UFT Leadership Elections and NYC Mayoral Election
  4. Spring of 2027 - Chapter Leader and Chapter Elections
  5. November 28, 2027 - UFT Contract expires
  6. 2028 - UAW Proposed May 1 General Strike, US Federal and Presidential Election, Top UFT Leadership Elections
  7. 2029 - NYC Mayoral Election

And for these milestones over the next 5 years, there are a series of related questions that I think are worth thinking through to give stakes to our interventions in the broader union:

How do we help defeat Eric Adams and elect a progressive Mayor? How do we help build a block of public sector unions willing to collectively fight for a fundamentally different style of contract campaign that transforms the livelihood of city workers? How does doing so help position us as a beacon for the public sector and an expanded welfare state in the era of multiple converging crises? How could we prepare to coordinate with private sector unions led by the UAW that could be engaged in rolling general strikes across the country in 2028? What if all of these struggles take place under a Trump second term and what could the role of Labor be in both overthrowing Trumpism and building a new working class alternative to corporate Democratic Party politics?

I believe that there is a sizable base of our union, including within the activist and elected chapter leadership tier, that could be won over to a visionary class struggle and social justice unionist approach to answering these questions. I believe that there are members of MORE, members of other dissident caucuses, independent UFT members, and even progressive members of Unity who could be won over to this vision. But we need to be serious about how we organize this force into a productive block. Can we organize a plurality of UFT members behind this vision? Better yet, can we organize a majority? I believe we can.

I write respectfully and welcome people’s thoughts, agreements, and disagreements, and regardless I hope to continue building together to make the UFT into what we know it can be. Solidarity Forever.

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